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June 4, 2009

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Slang of the Week: gobsmacked (adjective)

Jeff was gobsmacked when he learned his fiancée was an alien.

Celebrity quote
“I'm just gobsmacked.”
- 13-year-old dancer Perry Kiely on winning Britain’s Got Talent

This week, I tried to trace what I’d always thought was an obvious linguistic connection, and discovered it was not. But sometimes, a wrong turn is just as interesting as a right one.

I’ve been watching Britain’s Got Talent from my Boston apartment via the internet, and I noticed the word gobsmacked come up a lot in connection with the show, especially from contestants amazed at their own success. Back in April, audience favorite Susan Boyle told reporters, “I am truly gobsmacked. The reaction to my audition has been amazing.” 13-year-old Perry Kiely (above), also gobsmacked, is a member Diversity, a street dance group that beat out Boyle for the top place.

Gobsmacked is British slang that dates from the 1980s and while people who are gobsmacked are often rendered speechless, its literal meaning is “hit in the mouth.” Gob is British slang for mouth—even if you are American, you probably remember that from the children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Willy Wonka’s everlasting gobstoppers were giant hard candies that kept your mouth busy.

Though it is chiefly used in the UK and by no means common in the United States, I had thought it was known to at least some of us. Godsmack is the name of a popular American alternative band, and I’d always assumed it was a play on gobsmack (the verb form).

However, Godsmack got its name indirectly from another slang word. Though vocalist Sully Erna claims the name came from a joke about a bandmate’s cold sore, he admits that he was familiar with a song called God Smack by Seattle grunge band Alice in Chains. In fact, Godsmack often played cover versions of Alice in Chains songs during their early career.

The song God Smack is not related to surprise, but rather about drug addiction. The lyrics describe the anguish of the singer as he realizes he's lost a relationship with someone close to him: “For the horse you've grown much fonder/Than for me.” Both smack and horse are slang for heroin.

What’s New?
Translated quotes from Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Warning: adult content.)

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on military slang, hip hop slang, sports slang, cowboy slang, and more! This week’s pick: For more about British and American slang, check out Bum Bags and Fanny Packs : A British-American American-British Dictionary. At $10.17, it’s a great gift for anyone who loves British comedies or is planning a trip across the pond.