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.
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Image: Susan Boyle, © Copyright ITV 2009