Gobsmacked? Stunning revelations about this popular word

From New York Times columns to your friends’ texts and Facebook posts, the term has found its way into all sorts of contexts.

Have you ever been gobsmacked?

If so, it’s probably happened fairly recently. The term has gained popularity of late, and though it may seem merely the flavor of the month, it’s been around for a while.

The venerable Oxford Dictionary puts its origin in the 1980s.

What does it mean, though? Here’s what the Oxford Dictionary offers on that front.

adjective

British informal

utterly astonished; astounded: the locals were gobsmacked when us lot trooped in

I particularly like the ultra-slangy “us lot” as a subject; it gives it that gritty Londoner feel.

Beginnings

So, what’s its etymology? (That is, how did it come to be?)

Well, if you know that “gob” is British slang for “mouth,” you’re most of the way there.

Fans of Monty Python might remember the sketch in which Michael Palin goes to an argument clinic for a rousing verbal tussle with John Cleese. Along the way, though, he happens into the wrong room, and Graham Chapman shouts at him, “Shut yer festering gob…” and so on. It just gets uglier from there. Finally, when Palin’s mistake becomes evident, Chapman clarifies: “I’m sorry. This is Abuse.” Then after Palin leaves, Chapman mutters, “Stupid git.” Two bits of Brit slang in one tirade; wizard, wot?

Anyway, gob = mouth. Smacked is rather straightforward.

Let’s defer again to the Oxford Dictionary:

1980s: from gob3 + smack1 , with reference to being shocked by a blow to the mouth, or to clapping a hand to one’s mouth in astonishment

OK, I know of very few people (except for bad actors) who cover their mouths to express surprise, yet that seems to be the international symbol, as it were, for stupefaction.

It should come as no surprise (see what I did there?) that this “new” term is as ubiquitous (and nearly as worn out) as its effusive counterparts awesome and hilarious—the former being applied to anything even slightly above average and the latter used to describe any mildly amusing utterance or situation.

We live in an era of overstatement, but remember: Hyperbole kills.

Who’s using it?

So, where has the term popped up? A few examples follow.

Here’s a headline for an online review of Kevin Phillips’ book “1775: A Good Year for Revolution”:

“Lewis Lapham: Washington Gobsmacked by Pathetic Ammo”

(One might guess that a gobsmack would be especially painful for someone with wooden teeth.)

Here’s a partial quote from a British educator:

Contacted by the Guardian last night, [Pat] Schofield said she felt “a bit gobsmacked” to have a verse named after her. She described the poem as “a bit weird. But having read her other poems I found they were all a little bit weird. But that’s me.”

E.J. Graff, writing for the American Prospect, had a column with the headline “I am gobsmacked.”

The first line read: I did not think President Obama would state his support for same-sex marriage.

Maureen Dowd, in a New York Times column headlined “Romney Is President,” began this way:

It makes sense that Mitt Romney and his advisers are still gobsmacked by the fact that they’re not commandeering the West Wing.

And on it goes. As with any popular word or catch phrase, it pops up more frequently in conversation than in writing. (Editors tend to excise such stuff.) Besides, it’s more fun to say than to write—unless, of course, you’ve actually been smacked in the gob. Then you might need to write everything down, at least for a while.

A staggering array of alternatives

Because overuse of any trendy word starts it on the path to banality, let us tap the online thesaurus at Dictionary.com for alternatives:

agape, aghast, amazed, astonished, beat, bewildered, blown away, bowled over, breathless, buffaloed, confounded, dismayed, dumb, flabbergasted, floored, flummoxed, knocked, licked, nonplused, overcome, overwhelmed, puzzled, speechless, staggered, startled, stuck, stumped, stunned, stupefied, surprised, taken aback, thrown, thunderstruck

There are some beautiful words there: stupefied, thunderstruck. Gems. Nonplused is an established favorite, except most people don’t know what it means, or, worse, they think it means the opposite of what it actually does—kind of like enervate.

Of course, there’s always good old shocked—which, of course, as Captain Renault will tell you, is enhanced by saying it twice in rapid succession, which always pays off.

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