‘Gobsmacked’ and other astonishing words

My London-born mother-in-law has been known to jokingly say “shut your gobs!” to my children. Getting smacked in the gob will make you stop gabbing.

Karen Norris/Staff

A friend of mine told me recently that she was “gobsmacked” by the price of a new Apple computer monitor stand, which costs $1,000, monitor not included. That is indeed enough to make a person stare open-mouthed in astonishment, wondering what on earth that piece of metal could be doing to make it worth so much money.

Gobsmacked was originally a British word but has been making inroads into the U.S. since the 1980s, probably because it is so evocative, and so much fun to say. It also encapsulates the way English often represents extreme surprise. In word after word, we are struck by things out of nowhere, and they rob us of our power of speech. 

Gobsmacked itself is a combination of smack (“to hit”) and gob, which was originally a Northern English, Scottish, and Irish word for “mouth,” but is now used throughout the United Kingdom. My London-born mother-in-law has been known to say “shut your gobs!” to my children, jokingly, I am sure. When you are smacked in the gob, you’re going to stop gabbing (a related word). You are “astounded; speechless or incoherent with amazement,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it.

Dumbfound and dumbstruck make the same connection. “Dumb” here means “incapable of speech, mute,” as it has since it was first used in Old English. In the 19th century, this word acquired a new sense, stupid, which nowadays influences the way we interpret its earlier meaning. It is thus considered derogatory to say “he is dumb” while it remains acceptable to say, for example, “she is blind.” Dumbstruck (1586) and dumbfound (1653), though, evolved before they took on that negative connotation. Dumbstruck wears its sense on its sleeve – it means “struck dumb” or, as Merriam-Webster defines it, “made silent by astonishment.” Dumbfound is a little more complicated. It derives from the verb “to confound,” to surprise and completely confuse someone. Switch con- for dumb- and you get another word that means “to make speechless with astonishment.”

In “Paradise Lost” (1667), John Milton introduced agape, “speechless with astonishment,” specifically because your mouth is hanging wide open. Princely riches will dazzle a crowd, he writes, “and set them all agape.” Since the 19th century, agape has often been paired with aghast (“struck with dismay or terror”), as in this marvelous 1868 description of teachers who try to intimidate rather than educate their students, “brandishing hideous algebraic roots, and launching sesquipedalian thunders at poor boys and girls, agape and aghast.” All the math and the long words leave the poor students staring in open-mouthed amazement and quaking with terror.

Aghast also contributes to another wonderful “struck speechless” word, flabbergasted, which made its first recorded appearance in an anonymous 1772 list of Terrible New Words, along with bored. While etymologists seem to agree about -gast, there is lots of debate about flabber

Some argue that it derives from flabby, but others favor flap. If the latter is correct, it probably comes from the sound of lips flapping without producing words, or harks back to an old sense of flap as “a sudden blow.” Whatever its etymology, though, I’d say that among all the words that equate extreme surprise with losing the power of speech, flabbergasted offers gobsmacked its only possible competition.

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