When Sarah Palin resigned abruptly from the governorship of Alaska, a television journalist said he was “gobsmacked” by this turn of events. My ear took note of the word (but not, unfortunately, of the name of the pundit). Then I heard it again, on another news show.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd must have liked the sound of gobsmacked as well. Her July 4 column included this line:
“Gobsmacked Alaska politicians, Republican big shots, the national press, her brother, the D.C. lawyer who helped create her political action committee and yes, even Fox News, played catch-up.”
Nice adjective. But why use British slang for such a uniquely American political moment?
- It’s just plain fun to say.
- It’s fresh and attention-grabbing.
- The nuance of the hard slap of surprise to the American public in general, and to fans of the governor, fits the context.
(Personally, I think the use of gobsmacked is Dowd’s sly way of referencing the Thanksgiving turkey incident.)
But what does it all mean?
Gobsmacked (or gob-smacked) doesn’t appear in Merriam-Websters Collegiate — we need to reach for an unabridged dictionary to do justice to the definition. In a pinch, dictionary.com will do. Here we learn that gob means mouth in British and smacked means, well, punched.
And I suppose that being smacked in the gob would cause a great deal of surprise.
William Safire was way out in front of this usage. His On Language column from four years ago notes the rise of gobsmacked by journalist-types.
He explains the etymology; “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.”
I love this stuff.
Safire also asks, “Will gobsmacked be a nonce word, passing through the language, soon to be forgotten?”
Not as long as politicians continue to astonish, bewilder, flabbergast and astound the citizenry.