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.

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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.

July 14 2009 01:50 pm | General and news and some word!