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shameless pleading





Flummoxed, Flabbergasted and Gobsmacked

Shocked, shocked…

Dear Word Detective:  I am easily amazed. So it is nice to know that there are so many ways to express this bewildered state. I can choose, for example, to be “flummoxed,” “flabbergasted” or “gobsmacked,” depending on my state of stupefaction. Is it is a coincidence that all of these are such amazing words? Where did they come from? — Janis Landis.

Easily amazed, eh? I envy you. It must be nice to derive surprise from everyday life. Of course, it probably helps not to live in the middle of nowhere, as I do. There are only so many times “Look! A groundhog!” carries the thrill it first did. On the bright side, I remain, as my relatives will tell you, as easily amused as a small child, which comes in handy, given the current state of US culture. And although I’m not often “amazed” these days, I am frequently  appalled, but that may be simply because reality keeps upping the ante.

The terms you mention are all fine words denoting various degrees of amazement, but before we get too far into the tall grass with them, it’s worth considering the word “amaze” itself. It comes from the Old English word “amasian,” which meant “to stupefy, to stun, to confuse,” and which may have been rooted in Old Norse. Our modern positive sense of “overcome with wonder, astonish” dates back only to the 16th century. The older “confuse, befuddle” sense of “amaze,” incidentally, gave us “maze” in the 15th century meaning “a structure designed as a puzzle, with a complex network of paths leading through it, only one of which actually leads out.”

“Flummox” is a very useful word, meaning not only “to confuse” but also “to confound,” i.e., to frustrate so much that the only course is to give up and abandon the task or goal. Unfortunately, the origins of “flummox,” which first appeared in print in the early 19th century, are a mystery. There is some evidence that it comes from an English country dialect, and it may originally have been “echoic,” imitating the sound of something thrown down in disgust and  disorder on the ground.

“Flabbergast” is another useful word, meaning “to astonish; to render someone speechless with surprise” (“Bob was flabbergasted when the pizza he had ordered actually arrived hot”). “Flabbergast,” which first appeared (and was noted as then-fashionable slang in a magazine) in the late 18th century, is another mystery, but was most likely concocted as a combination of “flabby” or “flap” and “aghast” (which itself harks back to the Old English “gaest,” ghost). The original sense thus may have been of someone’s flab flapping or shaking with fear upon seeing an apparition. The proper term for the state of being “flabbergasted” is, incidentally, “flabbergastation,” which should come in handy next time oil prices go up.

There are two interesting things about “gobsmacked,” meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “Flabbergasted, astounded; speechless or incoherent with amazement.” The first is that “gobsmacked” is, thank heavens, not a mystery. It’s simply a combination of “gob,” very old English slang for the mouth or face, with “smack,” meaning “to strike with a slap or a blow.” (The roots of “gob” are, alas, slightly vague, but it probably comes from the Gaelic “gob,” meaning “beak or mouth.”) So to be “gobsmacked” is to be as surprised and amazed as if you had been struck in the mouth (“Won’t they be gobsmacked when you tell them that you wrote to me?”, 1989). The other noteworthy thing about “gobsmacked” is that, while it wouldn’t sound out of place in one of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s actually a very new word, first appearing in print in 1985. I won’t claim to have been “amazed” by that date, but it was a bit surprising.

6 comments to Flummoxed, Flabbergasted and Gobsmacked

  • ST-EMM

    Interesting, then, that the first discovered written use of a word can lag way behind the actual use. Gobsmacked was a word being used in my social circle (possibly “social” isn’t quite the word to use here, but that’s another story) in the mid-seventies in Australia, and my father used the term prior to that on occasion. That is not the result of memory lapse either, but fact.

    A colleague, a Sydney University English graduate, remembers it from school in the late 1960s. His memory of it just about squares with mine, and we’ve both worked in the same office and in the same business – on and off – for the past 35 years or so.

    I get the feeling sometimes that too much might be attached to the first discovery a term or word in print and that some slack should be applied if using it as a yardstick. Obviously it is important but it still gives an approximation at best.

  • Mary

    I had to check gobsmacked as it was part of a tweet today, quoted in the Washington Post in reference to the dismissal of Jill Abramson. I’m interested in the choice of the word and the fact that there’s a connotation of violence. Not much is being explained about this change of leadership.

    “Everyone gob-smacked in NYT newsroom over Jill Abramson leaving and Dean Baquet taking over,” tweeted Times arts reporter Patricia Cohen not long after the news broke.

  • There is some evidence of it being in print as early as 1956. Here is the quote from the website:

    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.

  • P Nalder

    The older meaning of ‘maze’ is alive and well in dialect. For instance in Devon “I was fair mazed” which means “I didn’t know what to make of it.”
    It’s not therefore, after all, an older meaning but an extant one.

  • Tom Malley

    Gobsmacked is Irish slang. It comes from the word “gob” meaning beak, and is also slang for mouth. It is also used in the saying “Hold your gob,” meaning “Shut up!”

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