91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

When a word leaves you "gobsmacked"

Unless you decided to completely avoid the internet in 2009, there's a good chance you've seen Susan Boyle’sfirst round performance on Britain’s Got Talent.

The Scottish singer’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” attracted millions of views on YouTube. No one was more surprised than Boyle herself, who told CNN she was “gobsmacked."

Boyle’s description of herself caused a bit of a stir among those unfamiliar with this particular British slang term.

To understand the meaning behind "gobsmacked," it helps to know that a “gob” is a mouth. This word comes from Irish and Scottish Gaelic. It still pops up in other places in British slang – for example, “shut your gob!”

If you say that you were “gobsmacked,” it means that you were so surprised or astonished, it was as though someone had smacked you in the mouth. It’s similar to calling something “jaw-dropping.”

Interestingly, “gobsmacked” isn’t really that old. During the Susan Boyle frenzy in 2009, Ben Zimmer wrote an article that dated it back to 1956. Since then, the Oxford English Dictionary has updated its entry for this word with evidence that dates it back to 1935.

While Professor Anne Curzan was researching “gobsmacked,” she came across some great synonyms, including “flabbergasted.” As a verb, we have evidence of “flabbergast” as early as 1773. At that time, it was identified as new slang.

There are different theories as to where this term that’s so fun to say comes from. Michael Quinion goes over a few on his blog, World Wide Words.

One possibility is that “flabbergast” was a regional dialect word that got picked up into broader slang. Another possibility is that it’s a blend of “aghast” and “flabby” – basically, you’re so excited that you shake.

How do describe yourself when something puts you in a state of shock or awe?

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Related Content