In the film industry, ordinary wooden clothespins are used to attach colored plastic gels to lights and they’re called C-47s.
A prominent visual effects artist told me an origin story of the phrase:
Back in the early days of Hollywood, studio heads would do audits and they’d see that the lighting departments were spending a ton of money on clothespins. And they said “we’re spending all this money on clothespins. This is ridiculous!” And they shut it down you know, not understanding that the clothespin is a very important tool for lighting that we use everyday. So the lighting guys started calling them ‘C-47s’ so that when the big-wigs saw so-and-so hundred dollars for C-47s and they said, “Oh sure, ‘C-47’ that sounds important, no problem.”
As a film student, I’ve heard several contradictory stories about the phrase C-47. Some of the other prominent origin tales are that they were names after a WWII fighter plane by returning soldiers turned filmmakers, or that C-47 is the patent number.
All of these stories are equally unverified. In practice, the lingo ‘C-47’ mainly serves as a test of membership on film sets. If you’re a newcomer on a set and a grip asks you to fetch a C-47, you have no idea what they mean and are forced to ask someone. It’s embarrassing to realize that a C-47 is just a simple clothes pin. The lingo functions as an inside joke, and an initiation that everyone on a film set must undergo.
The informant is a caucasian male. His father was born in Denmark, but was raised in America. He was raised in Virginia, but attended high school in Pasadena, CA. The informant later lived in Hawaii for 8 years, Northern California for 7 years, and now resides in Southern California again. He is a professor, teaching molecular biology to pharmacy students. He was brought up episcopalian but is no agnostic. The informant is divorced with one child.
The informant heard this story when he was working at the University of Davis in the 80s. He was told it on multiple occasions by his colleagues who had lived in the city for a longer time. He himself would retell the story whenever it came up in conversation. The story deals with a small creek that runs on the edge of the campus, through the arboretum, and out eventually to Napa Valley. This creek is called Putah Creek. The story goes that way back in the 1800s, when Davis was first being developed it was a mining town with many day laborers. These men would work hard all day, and then at night they would come down to Putah Creek for entertainment. The women of the night would come out strolling along the creek and the men would employ them. Eventually the creek became known as Putah Creek, after the Spanish word for prostitute. And the name has stuck to this day.
Analysis: This is an example of folk etymology, telling the story of how a place came to get its name. What makes this interesting is that in the interview with the informant, he admitted that he had also heard that the name is probably of Native American origin, indicated by the spelling. And yet he also said that the more racy story was the one that he would tell people. It is interesting that even while the informant was completely aware that there was at least some doubt about the origins of the name, as he himself admits, he will still tell the first story as if it were fact. This indicates a preference for an interesting story rather than the truth. So while the analysis of folk etymologies may not actually help to determine the true origins of anything, they do reveal what interests people enough to actively pass along.