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Richard Nordquist

Gobsmacked by Susan Boyle

By April 17, 2009

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In countless interviews following her startling performance last Saturday on the ITV program Britain's Got Talent, Susan Boyle has described herself as "gobsmacked, absolutely gobsmacked." And those who have heard Scotland's "unlikely singing sensation" (now, of course, on YouTube) might describe themselves as "gobsmacked" as well--even if the adjective is unfamiliar.

Americans may well be wondering, just what does it mean to be "gobsmacked"--and where did this odd word come from?

The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2006) defines "gobsmacked" as "being speechless or lost for words as the result of amazement or shock." Similarly, Sara Tulloch, author of The Oxford Dictionary of New Words (1991), offers the definition "astounded, flabbergasted; speechless or incoherent with amazement; overawed."

While both "gob" (Scottish and northern English slang for mouth) and "smack" have a long history, the compound appears to be recent. In her book Wodds and Doggerybaw: A Lincolnshire Dialect Dictionary (1995), Joan Sims-Kimbrey reports that "gobsmacked" made its debut in 1993 and has only lately been popularized by the British media. But Longman's Dictionary of New Words (1989) spotted "gobsmacked" in the October 27, 1987 issue of the magazine Melody Maker: "Aghast, concussed and altogether gobsmacked I find myself this week, having just listened to a most extraordinary documentary." And in Cassell's Dictionary of Slang (2005), Jonathon Green claims that the adjective first made its appearance in the 1950s, but he provides no details.

Though almost everyone seems to have fallen in love with Susan Boyle, the same can't be said of "gobsmacked." In his Dictionary of Disagreeable English (2006), Robert Hartwell Fiske calls it "one of the least attractive words in the English language today (leaving aside some four-letter ones)."

All we can say is that Fiske should probably get used to being gobsmacked. As of this morning, Susan Boyle's performance has received 20 million hits on YouTube, and interviews with the singer are playing non-stop on every cable news channel. So this past week an unemployed Scottish "spinster," as she calls herself, suddenly became world famous. Around the same time, we suspect, the adjective "gobsmacked" entered the lexicons of millions of Americans.

More Words About Words:

Image: Susan Boyle, © Copyright ITV 2009


April 17, 2009 at 5:46 pm
(1) Dianne says:

Her name is misspelled in the first paragraph. It’s Boyle, not Doyle.

April 17, 2009 at 10:40 pm
(2) Beryl says:

The Judges should get an Award for being such great Actors. They already knew that she could sing like that, as she had to have had an Audition in advance. But it worked. It has the whole world talking. I will even go as far to say that she had an Agent as soon as she had the Audition. Clever Producers.
Good luck Susan. Don’t let them exploit you.

April 18, 2009 at 7:45 pm
(3) Mary says:

The 4 judges of America Idol do NOT hear the original auditions. This may be true also for the British Talent Show.

April 20, 2009 at 8:04 am
(4) Oliver Chettle says:

I was born in 1972 into a middle class family in southern England, but I’m almost certain I’ve known this word since my early childhood, so the lexicographers need to dig deeper.

April 20, 2009 at 10:11 am
(5) Oliver Chettle says:

Robert Hartwell Fiske’s comments are perplexing. I note that he is American, and I presume that he has misunderstood the physically origins of the term. It is nothing to do with hitting someone in the face, rather is refers to the action of gasping with surprise and politely hiding one’s open “gob”. Perhaps the word has working class origins, but so far as I am aware (and I think I would know better than him) no-one objects to the use of this term in polite company in the UK.

April 20, 2009 at 12:54 pm
(6) Adina says:

I’m an American, but I love the term gobsmacked. To me it reveals more emotion, a deeper feeling, than words like amazed, flabbergasted, or overawed.

April 21, 2009 at 3:25 pm
(7) Patsy Beckert says:

I checked out “gobsmacked” & Roald Dahl online, finding plenty of references to the word. I remember reading Dahl’s children’s novel “The BFG” and coming across that word for the first time there. It’s a surprise to read your column discussing your total unfamiliarity with “gobsmacked”, and using it in the title of your piece without doing any (or apparently, much) research first!

April 21, 2009 at 6:50 pm
(8) Karen says:

Patsy, your misreading of this post is odd for a few reasons. For one, Richard never says that HE’S unfamiliar with this British slang expression, only that many Americans may be. For another, citing a British author’s use of “gobsmacked” only supports Richard’s point. And finally, a short blog that provides direct references to six books on language is hardly short on research.

April 26, 2009 at 2:18 pm
(9) Suzanne says:

I think Oliver has also misread this post. First, Robert Harwell Fiske’s only comment (as quoted by Richard) is that gobsmacked is “one of the least attractive words” in English. This is opinion only, and even his blog lists it as simply “his vote.” Second, nowhere does anyone suggest that the word means to hit someone in the face, unless you are extrapolating that from the fourth paragraph which simply deconstructs the word. Third, it may be working-class in origin, but again, nobody is suggesting it’s a vulgar word, just unpleasant. What does Fiske’s nationality have to do with any of this and why does he perplex you?

May 17, 2009 at 12:38 pm
(10) Patsy Beckert says:

Point taken. Sorry to be so late in responding to your comments on my post.

January 5, 2013 at 1:24 pm
(11) John says:

May an ignorant Yank offer a possibility? Learning for the first time that ‘gob’ is slang for mouth, it seems to me that the ‘smack’ is not as I assumed, a slap, but the sound of the gob opening quickly. It is onomatopaeia such as in the phrase, lip-smacking good.

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