Sun, Jul 18, 2004 - Page 9 News List

`Gobsmacked': `Thunderstruck' has just been blown away

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"One of my favorite CNN anchors," wrote the columnist Lloyd Grove in The New York Daily News four months ago about the newscaster Anderson Cooper, "is gobsmacked that Ben Affleck would go out of his way in the latest Rolling Stone to trash him."

Curiously, that same British verb was used last month in a Boston Herald article about the same actor: "Hollywood hottie Ben Affleck has been gobsmacked by his new J.Lo-esque local lady ..."

Earlier this year, The Washington Post quoted a senior journalist with the BBC about the resignation of the network's top executives after a judicial inquiry concluded that the BBC had broadcast unfounded allegations against British Prime Minister Tony Blair and then failed to investigate complaints: "Everybody's completely gobsmacked that one duff report by one weird reporter has caused the whole foundation to shake."

The locution is sweeping the English world, from its noun form in Melbourne, Australia ("It was quite a gobsmacker when a 1948 Bradman cap sold before auction six months ago for a supposed US$425,000"), to its modifier form in The New York Times, describing the actress Anna Paquin, now 22, as "the tiny, startled, speechless, gobsmacked girl who won an Academy Award at the age of 11."

The origin is British. The late quotation anthologist James B. Simpson sent me an early usage in 1997 from Tony Banks, British minister of sport at the time, "I was completely gobsmacked," which I dutifully posted in this space, little realizing the expression had such a future. The Oxford Dictionary of New Words reports usages from the mid-1980s, defining it as "astounded, flabbergasted; speechless or incoherent with amazement; overawed."

A "gob" has to do with the mouth. It can mean "a mass," as in "gobs of money," from the Old French gobe, "mouthful." 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.

Why is a sailor called a "gob," which has the dialect sense of "to spit"? Because in British nautical slang of the 19th century, coast guardsmen used to tell yarns, chew tobacco and spit out the juice. The common denominator of all this gobbledygook is the mouth.

US sports fans will find a distant connection between "smash-mouth" as a description of especially brutal football and "gobsmacked," but the violence in the latter is purely figurative.

Will "gobsmacked" be a nonce word, passing through the language, soon to be forgotten? Or will it overcome the explosive "blown away," which has long since overwhelmed "flabbergasted," which describes the aghast state of a fat person? If it does, I will be surprised, perhaps even stunned, but far short of dumbfounded or thunderstruck.

SET THE PREDICATE

"The report by itself is not a good-news report," said Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on the eve of the publication of its CIA study. "But on the other side of it, it will allow us to set the predicate to move immediately to the reform issues."

Nancy Matthews of Sierra Research wants to know where the phrase comes from and what it means. In grammar, the predicate is the part of the sentence that tells something about the subject -- including the verb, the object and adverbial clauses along the way. In the previous sentence, the predicate is everything except "the predicate," which is the subject.

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