Putting your foot in it | Sunday Observer

Putting your foot in it

4 April, 2021

“Putting your foot in it” is an idiom that means causing embarrassment with a tactless remark. You put your foot in it when you told her how much you admired her husband. They were divorced last year!

A tactless remark can be a faux pas which is an embarrassing mistake in a social situation. It can be a blunder which means a careless or stupid mistake. Sometimes it is called gaffe, meaning a social blunder or clumsy remark. The word gaffe comes from the French word “gaffe” which means a “boat hook.”

Neither Mark Daniel nor the Internet, nor even the dictionaries I have consulted, can enlighten me as to why it is called a “gaffe.” A faux pas, which is like a gaffe, is much easier to disassemble. A faux pas in translation means “false step.”

Family friend

At a dinner party, a shy young man had been trying to think of something nice to say to his hostess. At last he saw his chance when she turned to him and remarked, “What a small appetite you have, Mr Jones.” “To sit next to you,” he replied gallantly, “would cause any man to lose his appetite.”Christopher Buckley met one of his family friends who happened to be one of America’s premier entrepreneurs and greeted him by saying, “Good to see you again.” Instead of responding, the entrepreneur remained silent for a moment and asked, “How is your wife?” However, Buckley caught a quick shadow. Then the entrepreneur said, “She died three years ago.”

Humans are not perfect animals. They make social blunders all the time. But if an ordinary man makes a clumsy remark, it goes unnoticed. If a politician or somebody with a social standing makes a social blunder, it will go viral. A faux pas, blunder or gaffe is an embarrassing mistake made in a social situation. Although we do not hear the phrase faux pas very often, even well-known people continue to make blunders all the time.

However much we are educated or civilised, we still make social blunders. Pundit Michael Kinsley defined gaffe as follows: “When a politician accidentally speaks the truth, it is a gaffe.” This may be true. At the Democratic Convention, US President Jimmy Carter extolled the virtues of the former Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey as “Hubert Horatio Hornblower.”


Sometime people mispronounce names. Stuyvesant Fish, a wealthy socialite, attended a fancy-dress ball in Newport, Rhode Island. At the door, she whispered the theme of her dress to the butler, “A Norman peasant.” Then she walked into the hall. The butler thundered, “An enormous pheasant.”

A Freudian slip is something you say that is different from what you intended to say. It is somewhat similar to a faux pas. One day, a man went to a railway station to buy two tickets to Pittsburg. When he saw the woman at the counter, he noted that she had an amazing figure. Then he asked for “Two tickets to Tittsburg.”

I remember another Freudian slip narrated by our psychology lecturer. A college student was intent on making a good first impression on an attractive girl he had spotted across a crowded room at a party. As he walked towards her, he mulled over a line he had heard in an old movie the night before: “I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced yet.” To his horror, what came out of his mouth was a bit different. After threading his way through the crowded room, he finally reached the woman and blurted out, “I don’t believe we’ve been properly seduced yet.”

Freudian slip

By the way, a Freudian slip is an unintentional error regarded as revealing subconscious feelings, named after the Austrian neurologist and psychotherapist Sigmund Freud. He was the first to emphasise the significance of subconscious processes in normal and neurotic behaviour. He was also the founder of psychoanalysis as a theory of personality and a therapeutic practice.

One of Queen Elizabeth’s subjects made tabloid headlines by not curtsying to her. The offender was the scantily clad Geri Halliwell, at the time Ginger of the Spice Girls. It is well known that Americans and the British royalty do not necessarily agree on what constitutes a faux pas. In 1981, the US Chief of Protocol Leonore Anneberg created a sensation by curtsying to Prince Charles when she welcomed him officially to the United States. Anneberg, a gracious woman, was only trying to be courteous. However, America had fought two centuries earlier precisely to win the privilege of not bowing to or scraping before royalty.

A social blunder can take place even when you do not understand someone’s words properly. On a personal visit to Las Vegas, a man wanted to talk to his wife living in India. As there were no direct dialing facilities at the time, he picked up the phone and asked the telephone operator, “Could you please tell me the time difference between Las Vegas and India?” The operator said, “Just a minute Sir.” He thanked the operator and replaced the receiver.

Rear Admiral

Misunderstandings can play havoc in life. Robert Benchley, an author, while leaving a hotel one night saw a man in uniform at the entrance. He thought the man was the doorman and asked him to call a cab. The man in uniform got angry and said, “You should know I am a Rear Admiral in the US Navy.” “In that case,” said Benchley, “get me a battleship.”

Uniforms can lead to much confusion. One day, a woman who boarded a bus asked a man in uniform for a ticket. He looked at her angrily and said, “Get it from the conductor.” He was wearing a uniform similar to the one worn by the conductor. At political meetings, some announcers tend to make slips of the tongue. At a public event, the announcer said, “Now President Mahinda Rajapaksa will address the meeting.” He immediately corrected himself when he saw President Sirisena coming to the microphone.

Shall we dance?

British Prime Minister George Brown attended a diplomatic reception in Vienna. He enjoyed a glass of wine offered to him and heard the orchestra striking up a tune. When he looked around, he saw beautiful woman in scarlet seated beside him. Then he turned to her and said, “Madam, shall we dance?”

The woman protested and said, “No, Mr Brown, for three reasons. First, this is a reception, not a ball. Second, even were this a ball, this would still be a state anthem and not a waltz. And third, were this ball not a reception and were that a waltz and not a state anthem, I would still be the Cardinal Archbishop.” Brown realised that appearances can be deceptive.

Actor David Niven was talking to a man at a fancy ball. They saw two women coming down the staircase. Pointing to the older woman he said, “That’s the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen.” The other man said, “That’s my wife.” Niven said, “I was referring to the other woman.” “That’s my daughter,” the other man said angrily.

Niven looked at him straight and said, “I didn’t say it.”