Monday, March 19, 2012

Be the Best, Boy

In movie credits, which often seemingly last as long as the feature itself, there’s usually a credit for a “Best Boy.”  If you already know all you want to know about that term, you may click right now to a more instructional web site, such as  But if you’d like to know more, stay tuned.

In movie parlance a best boy is the chief assistant of either the gaffer or the key grip.

The gaffer is the head lighting technician, and the origin of the term is obscure.  One source says it is because he operates a gaff, a long pole fitted with hardware so that it can move overhead lights into different positions.  Gaff dates to 1656 as the Occitan word gaf, which meant a spearhead. 

(Incidentally, Occitan, sometimes called langue d’oc, is a Romance language that was once spoken in southern France.  It is distinguished from French, or langue d’ oïl, by the word used to mean “yes”—oc in Occitan and oïl in Old French.)

Others, however, say gaffer has nothing to do with a gaff, but stems from that word’s usage to mean “an old man” (just as gammer can mean an old woman, as in the sixteenth-century farce Gammer Gurton’s Needle ), probably a contraction of grandfather or godfather. Gaffer was subsequently used to mean a foreman or overseer on a work site, and hence to mean the chief of the lighting crew.  Or so some believe.

A grip, in theatrical usage, is a stagehand, a word first used in the 1880s, based on the manner in which backstage workers had to “grasp” or “grip” big pieces of scenery to move them.  In the motion picture world, a grip is responsible for moving cameras into the proper position, with the use of equipment like dollies, tracks, booms, cranes, camera cars, helicopters, airplanes, and trailers. The head grip is known as the key grip.

The term best boy has been used in the film business since the 1930s, and there are several theories about its origin.  One is that it was first used in the English apprentice system to refer to a promising apprentice who was ready to be promoted to journeyman.  Another source suggests that in pre-craft union days, it was common for technicians to be shared between departments, and the gaffer might ask the key grip for the loan of his “best boy,” or vice versa.  Another theory holds that a best boy was originally a term used by the captain of a sailing ship for his most able crewmember.  Sailors on shore leave were often hired to rig theatrical equipment, and the term may have come into usage that way. 

Best boy is gender neutral, although the term best girl is sometimes used informally. 

The Best Bard of Buffalo Bayou needs no introduction and will get none:

            The best boy has got to get better,
            For the best boy is not very good.
            The best boy is not a go-getter
            And can’t do what the best best boys should.

            The best boy believes he’s the best man,
            And his best girl — she helps him rehearse.
            But he still cannot do what the rest can—
            And the best boy’s best girl is far worse.    


  1. I was trying to remember why "Gammer Gurton's Needle" sounded familiar ... did Flanders and Swann mention it, or Tom Lehrer, or ...?

  2. The Rice Players produced "Gammer Gurton's Needle" in 1959. The headline on the Thresher review said it was sew-sew.