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.
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.
On July 4th, let’s pay tribute to the legendary Richard Stands. Name ring a bell? Here’s a reminder …
I pledge allegiance to the flag
of the United States of America
and to the Republic
for Richard Stands … .
Maybe YOU were able to make sense of all the chanted lines in the Pledge of Allegiance. Took me a while. So, I can understand how many American schoolchildren came up with such unintentionally humorous phrases as “Richard Stands” or even “witches stands” for the line that goes “which it stands.”
“Richard Stands” is one of the most common mishearings or misinterpretations of the words to the Pledge of Allegiance — and one of the best examples of a class of creative homonyms dubbed mondegreens.
Mondegreen is a term coined by American writer and editor Sylvia Wright in a column for Harper’s Magazine (1954). Seems that Ms. Wright had misheard the last line in a favorite Scottish ballad – the line being “And laid him on the green” – as “And Lady Mondegreen.” The neologism stuck.
When you perceive a word, lyric or phrase as another viable word or phrase — that’s a mondegreen. And the thing is, it may be years before you find yourself slapping your forehead and saying, “Oh, is THAT what it says?!” Mondegreens tend to be very personal, however several examples, especially in song, have achieved classic status.
Famous song mondegreens of a certain era:
“Scuse me while I kiss this guy” from Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix
One more thing about mondegreen, the word. It’s been slow to be accepted by the dictionary police. It’s not in my Merriam-Websters Collegiate Dictionary – Eleventh Edition, but IS in the M-W 2008 update.
April 16, 2009, was the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Elements of Style, that compact guide to grammar and style credited to William Strunk Jr. and the great American essayist E.B. White.
According to some linguists, this was not White’s best effort, and the book’s impact on young students is lamentable. I say, no harm done.
For a brief history of how The Elements of Style came to be published — and why it does not deserve the multi-generational loyalty it receives, read the following contrarian (and entertaining) view by linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum: 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.
I was at a meeting last week where a committee member proposed “to operationalize the strategy.” Ugh!
That’s a lot of syllables for a word that means tobegin or more specifically, to cause to be operational. But why does this -ize word sound particularly jargon-y and like it’s trying too hard?
Sometimes the -ize have it and sometimes they don’t. According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, -ize was introduced into English in the late 16th century “to remedy the surplus of monosyllabic words.” Huh.
Turns out the multi-faceted suffix has been drawing criticism ever since. The oft-used shortcut to verbing nouns and adjectives has resulted in many words in common usage. Think strategy/strategize, economy/economize, sync/synchronize.
The suffix works especially well with words ending in l, as with crystal and final. And sometimes the root word has disappeared right from under our -ize, as in mesmerize, which is derived from a proper name, Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) .
I think the problem with operationalize is its unwieldy tone and distance from the original verb, operate. To my ear, it sounds … dysfunctionalized.