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Q From W S McCollom: I was looking at a UK magazine and ran across gobsmack. What can you tell me about this term?

A You’re most likely to come across this mainly British slang term as the adjective gobsmacked; your gobsmack and another form, gobstruck, are less common.

Gobsmacked combines the northern English and Scottish slang term gob, mouth, with the verb smack. It suggests the speaker is utterly astonished or astounded. It’s much stronger than just being surprised; it’s used for something that leaves you speechless, or otherwise stops you dead in your tracks. It suggests that something is as surprising as being suddenly hit in the face. A couple of examples:

I was utterly gobsmacked to hear that a 22-year-old woman from America has put her virginity up for sale.

The Sun, 1 Nov. 2010.

The noise and testosterone roiled off the track, rushed up the stands, and almost knocked me over. I was gobstruck. I looked at Alex. Her eyes were bugged out, and she was smiling ear to ear. “Holy cow!” Alex said. “HOLY COW!!”

Parade Magazine, 24 Aug. 2008.

Though the trail of written evidence was until recently believed to date only from the early 1980s, we knew it went back a lot further in the spoken language. A report in the Guardian in February 1985, relating an encounter with the famous footballer Sir Stanley Matthews, implied that it was even then 40 years old. This is supported by a recent find:

I’m so amazed that only the Malderbury dialect can express my condition: “I’m properly gob-smacked”.

A Woman of Bangkok, by Jack Reynolds, 1959. A version of the text was published in 1956 as A Sort of Beauty. There’s no such place as Malderbury.

Gobsmacked, like gob itself, comes from northern English and southern Scottish dialects. One reason why it starts to appear in print in the 1980s is that it was used by the writers of gritty television series set in northern cities, such as Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff, about five Liverpudlian tarmac layers, and Coronation Street, set in a fictional suburb of Manchester (Jeffrey Miller included it in his glossary Street Talk — The Language of Coronation Street in 1986).

It was taken up shortly afterwards by broadsheet newspapers such as The Times, the Sunday Times and the Independent as well as the Guardian and by politicians who used it to display their demotic credentials. It has since travelled widely. William Safire commented in The New York Times in 2004 that the “locution is sweeping the English world”. The success of the Scottish singer Susan Boyle in BBC television’s Britain’s Got Talent in 2009 led to a further boost, since she used it copiously in interviews.

It’s an obvious derivation of an existing term, since gob has been a dialect and slang term for the mouth for four hundred years (often in insulting phrases like shut your gob! to tell somebody to be quiet). It possibly goes back to a Scottish Gaelic word meaning a beak or a mouth, which has also bequeathed us the verb to gob, meaning to spit. Another form of the word is gab, from which we get gift of the gab.

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Page created 03 Jul 1999; Last updated 04 Dec 2010