Oxford Dictionary of New Words
GOBSMACKED [[~1980-1995]] adjective. Also written ‘gob-smacked: In British slang: astounded, flabbergasted, speechless or incoherent with amazement; overawed.
From ‘gob’ (slang for the mouth) and ‘smacked; the image is of clapping a hand over the mouth, a stock theatrical gesture of surprise also widely used in cartoon strips.
Although it had been in spoken use for several decades, ‘gobsmacked’ is not recorded in print until the mid eighties. It was then the slang of the football terraces and the yob [British; applied to a lout or hooligan] culture; why it suddenly started to be much more widely used, nobody knows. Surprisingly it was the ‘quality’ newspapers which took it up—perhaps to show their familiarity with current slang—although it also appeared in the tabloids. It was used particularly memorably in 1991 by Chris Patten, then chairman of the Conservative Party (see quote below). Two related adjectives, ‘gobstruck’ and ‘gobsmacking,’ have been formed, as well as an adverb ‘gobsmackingly.’ A verb ‘gobsmack’ was back-formed from the adjective in the eighties.
_________________________________________<1989 “The movie—which took a GOBSMACKING seven years to make . . . won bundles of Oscars in 1988.”—‘Fast Forward,’ 15 Nov., page 25>
<1991 “The chairman of the Conservative Party admitted on Radio Four’s Today programme that he was ‘GOBSMACKED’ by Labour’s claim that its poll-tax replacement would save the average household 140 pounds.”—‘Independent on Sunday,’ 19 May, page 23>
<1992 “The jagged preoccupation with the Trompeta Real and the morbid spotlight on Simeon’s GOBSTRUCK state might make their point once, but I can’t live with them.”—‘Classic CD,’ 25 May, page 66>
Gobsmacked by William Safire, New York Times Magazine, July 18, 2004
One of my favorite CNN anchors,'' wrote the columnist Lloyd Grove in The New York Daily News four months ago about the newscaster Anderson Cooper, ''is ‘gobsmacked’ that Ben Affleck would go out of his way in the latest Rolling Stone to trash him.''
Curiously, that same British verb was used last month in a Boston Herald article about the same actor: ''Hollywood hottie Ben Affleck [has] been ‘gobsmacked’ by his new J.Lo-esque local lady. . . . ''
Earlier this year, The Washington Post quoted a senior journalist with the British Broadcasting Corporation about the resignation of the network's top executives after a judicial inquiry concluded that the BBC had broadcast unfounded allegations against Prime Minister Tony Blair and then failed to investigate complaints: ''Everybody's completely ‘gobsmacked’ that one duff report by one weird reporter has caused the whole foundation to shake.''
The locution is sweeping the English world, from its noun form in Melbourne, Australia (''It was quite a ‘gobsmacker’ when a 1948 Bradman cap sold before auction six months ago for a supposed $425,000''), to its modifier form in The New York Times, describing the actress Anna Paquin, now 22, as ''the tiny, startled, speechless, ‘gobsmacked’ girl who won an Academy Award at the age of 11.''
The origin is British. The late quotation anthologist James B. Simpson sent me an early usage in 1997 from Tony Banks, Britain's minister of sport at the time, ''I was completely ‘gobsmacked,’'' which I dutifully posted in this space, little realizing the expression had such a future. The Oxford Dictionary of New Words reports usages from the mid-80's, defining it as ''astounded, flabbergasted; speechless or incoherent with amazement; overawed.''
A gob has to do with the mouth. It can mean ''a mass,'' as in ''’gobs’ of money,'' from the Old French ‘gobe,’ ''mouthful.'' The Gaelic ‘gob’ is ''mouth, beak.'' One sense of the verb ‘gobble,’ from the same French root, is ''to eat fast and greedily.'' And when a politician says a mouthful with some degree of articulation, he is said to have the gift of ‘gab’.
Why is a sailor called a ‘gob,’ which has the dialect sense of ''to spit''? Because in British nautical slang of the 19th century, coast guardsmen used to tell yarns, chew tobacco and spit out the juice. The common denominator of all this gobbledygook is the mouth.
American sports fans will find a distant connection between ‘smash-mouth’ as a description of especially brutal football and ‘gobsmacked,’ but the violence in the latter is purely figurative.
Will ‘gobsmacked’ be a nonce word, passing through the language, soon to be forgotten? Or will it overcome the explosive ‘blown away,’ which has long since overwhelmed ‘flabbergasted,’ which describes the aghast state of a fat person? If it does, I will be surprised, perhaps even stunned, but far short of ‘dumbfounded ‘or ‘thunderstruck.’
Ken G – July 21, 2004