Word Routes

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Susan Boyle is Gobsmacked (and Poleaxed Too)

Unless you've been living under an Internet-free rock, you've probably seen the enthralling video of Scotland's Susan Boyle singing on the television show Britain's Got Talent. According to the latest numbers, the video of Boyle's performance has already attracted more than 100 million online views. But it's not only her singing prowess that is attracting worldwide attention: it has also been reported that "Web searches for the term gobsmacked spiked after Boyle used the British slang meaning utterly astonished when describing her reaction to newfound widespread acclaim."

The graph for gobsmacked on Google Trends bears out the huge spike in online searches, buoyed by Boyle's use of the term in numerous interviews. She told CNN, for instance, "I'm gobsmacked, absolutely gobsmacked." Previously, this colloquialism hadn't circulated much outside of the British Isles, but now it's fair to say that Boyle has brought it to much wider notice in the United States and elsewhere.

Even if non-Brits have encountered gobsmacked before (defined by the Visual Thesaurus as "utterly astounded"), they might not know its derivation. Gob is UK slang for "mouth," as in Willy Wonka's Everlasting Gobstoppers, pieces of hard candy that "stop" (close) your "gob" (mouth). (Americans would call them jawbreakers.) So gobsmacked equates the feeling of astonishment with the feeling of being smacked in the mouth.

British usage of gobsmacked has only become prominent since the 1980s, but the earliest known appearance of the term actually goes back to 1956. As Jerry Friedman noted recently on the Usenet newsgroup alt.usage.english, Google Book Search now reveals this passage from the novel Woman of Bangkok: "I'm so amazed that only the Malderbury dialect can express my condition: I'm 'properly gob-smacked.'" The author of Woman of Bangkok is one Jack Reynolds, but this is likely a pseudonym: also in 1956, the book was published in Britain as A Sort of Beauty under the name Jack Jones. And just to add to the mystery, the "Malderbury dialect" to which the narrator refers is a fabrication: there's no such place as Malderbury.

We can guess that Jack Reynolds/Jones had some ties to northern England or Scotland, where the term gob has long been a slang term for "mouth." According to Michael Quinion of World Wide Words, the word likely spread from Scottish Gaelic (where gob can mean "beak" and also suggests gab "talk"), primarily via insulting phrases like "Shut your gob!" ("Be quiet!"). So it's fitting that a Scot like Susan Boyle, who hails from the town of Blackburn about twenty miles from Edinburgh, should be the one to bring gobsmacked to international recognition.

And that wasn't the only colorful slang that Boyle used in her post-performance interviews. She also told ITV, the network that broadcasts Britain's Got Talent, "I was poleaxed with joy when I came off [the stage]." A poleaxe is an axe for slaughtering cattle (or a medieval battle-axe), which has spawned a verb meaning "fell with or as if with a poleaxe." The Oxford English Dictionary dates the participial adjective poleaxed back to 1851 (the English poet Martin F. Tupper wrote, "And down like a pole-axed bull he drops, And weak on the threshold lies"). Like gobsmacked, the figurative sense of poleaxed to mean "astounded" seems to have been popularized in the 1980s, but it wasn't restricted to British usage: American author Judith Krantz described a male character in a 1983 novel as staring at a woman with a look of "poleaxed yearning."

Other Boyleisms are more strictly regional. In another ITV interview, she mused about what it would be like if she advanced in the competition far enough to join in the Royal Variety Show, performing for Queen Elizabeth II: "She is a very regal lady, very nice, so I would be nice too, and just get up there and give it a bit of wellie." Wellie (or welly) is British slang for "power, vigor, effort." It's short for Wellington boot, with the idea being that applying effort is like putting one's foot on an accelerator, or possibly giving something a hard kick.

Boyle further recalled, "Being on that stage and being on the other end of that reception was absolutely fantastic. It went down a bomb." Americans typically use bomb to mean "an event that fails badly or is totally ineffectual," but Brits use it in precisely the opposite way to mean "a success." (Of course, younger Americans now approximate British usage by saying "That's the bomb!" to express a positive sentiment.) The peculiar phrasing went down a bomb is a way of saying something (particularly a performance) succeeded smashingly. This also seems to be common to Scotland and northern England. The OED provides a 1963 quotation from Liverpool's own John Lennon about a pre-Beatles band: "Once, Paul McCartney and I played Reading as the Nurk Twins. Went down a bomb, I recall."

If you want to learn more about regional dialects of British English like Boyle's, take a break from the incessant YouTube videos to check out these great online resources:

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday April 21st 2009, 5:59 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
I live in China, not under an "Internet-free rock". Unfortunately Youtube is currently being blocked, so I have not seen this much acclaimed video.
Tuesday April 21st 2009, 8:56 AM
Comment by: Anonymous
Valerie: If YouTube is blocked, you might try watching the video on the ITV website here.
Tuesday April 21st 2009, 12:24 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
A fascinating view into the linguistic lens of this phenomenon.

In your article, you've touched on something that I'd request you explore for us in the future:

When she says "Went down a bomb," it indicates to me that she's skipping the word "like" to complete the simile (i.e., "Went down like a bomb").

There is something to British dialect of English (and apparently even more so in Australia) where they seem to leave out prepositions and modifiers that folks in the U.S. keep in?

I've heard common phrases from Britain and Australia such as "going to hospital" (missing "the") and "waiting for bus" (again, lacking the "the").

Is "Went down a bomb" similar dialectal treatment as my other examples?

And, if so, is there an identified dynamic where Americans actually more properly construct sentences than the originators of the tongue? Or are the grammar rules different across the pond?

Tuesday April 21st 2009, 6:50 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Having just read The Professor and the Madman, I find the references to the OED of great interest.
The date a word or usage came into the language is obtained by only the most fastidious and prolonged effort. Further, the decision as to which word-form can be considered the "proper" one, takes unimaginable research and editorial skill.
And finally, the early acquisition of any language in the first place is of greatest amazement to me.
Thursday April 23rd 2009, 6:25 PM
Comment by: Mo (Wanganui New Zealand)
jon d
perhaps you ought to axe (ask for the english) someone from england. i believe it is part of the daily grammatical use of language. my father, then consequently myself and now my children say 'we are going to shops.'we live in new zealand and here there are allsorts of dialectical phrasing in use.
however i did enjoy the article but your commentary, "And, if so, is there an identified dynamic where Americans actually more properly construct sentences than the originators of the tongue?" left me with a phrase a young american gentleman had said, ringing in my ears."america is a great country."
my reply is; no america is not a great country any more than britian was a great britain and to you sir the english language is a living language and changes, rebuilds, appropriates and sounds beautiful to the ears of many. although there is a place for 'proper english' i would say to my detriment (out loud of course) "it aint whatcha say to me mate but how ya say it and thats the groove i hang me ears on ok. catchya mate."
godbless and have a wonderful day.
(ps. please forgive capitalisation, i am told i am lazy)
Thursday April 23rd 2009, 8:34 PM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
Hi Mo,

Allow me to parse the meaning behind the phrasing of my question: My use of the word "actually" was meant to indicate that the last thing I presumed is that Americans would properly construct much of anything.

Yes, by using "actually," I was meaning to be subtly self-effacing, as I think Americans would do good to lean to that extreme these days if for no other reason than to counterbalance the echoes you described that went through your mind mind when you read my comment.

Cheers, mate!
Friday April 24th 2009, 12:13 PM
Comment by: Roma L. (West Hills, CA)
Hi Jon,

I'll ask my British cousins. In the meantime, parse the sentence this way and it makes more sense:

It (subject) went down (verbial phrase) a bomb (predicate clause)

Becomes: It proceeded successfully. No definite article required!
Tuesday April 28th 2009, 7:48 PM
Comment by: Talley Sue H. (New York, NY)
You wrote: "So gobsmacked equates the feeling of astonishment with the feeling of being smacked in the mouth."

Does it really equate astonishment with being smacked in the mouth by someone else? Or does it call to mind something like a facepalm?

In fact, is "facepalm" the new version of "gobsmacked"?
Wednesday May 6th 2009, 7:47 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
Indeed, Jon, the grammar of British English differs in several respects from US grammar. Without having made a study of it, I can give you a couple of examples offhand: the past participle of the verb get in British English is got, but gotten in the US, and the verb agree in British English is a transitive one, unlike in American English, where you have to agree TO or ON something. But the omission of like in "it went down a bomb" is simply an example of differing idioms, something like "that went down a treat" when talking about something that's nice to eat.
Thursday May 7th 2009, 7:51 AM
Comment by: Furrokh I. (Morganville, NJ)
I knew I'd read the word (gob-smacked) used before: http://www.sarahchayes.net/images/Shadow_government.pdf

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