The Britishisms Are Coming!

Gobsmacked by the recent British slang invasion

“I am gobsmacked by these appointments, most of which could easily have come from a President McCain,” Max Boot, a journalist who served as a foreign policy adviser to John McCain, said recently of Barack Obama’s cabinet choices. Someone else, commenting anonymously on the collapse of a prominent law firm after the arrest, in Canada, of one of the firm’s principals, said: “This has just been a complete lightning strike. The lawyers are completely gobsmacked.’’

“Gobsmacked” is British slang, originating in northern England and in use since about 1975, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But you don’t have to know what the term means to understand its impact. The “smacked” part makes it clear that someone who is “gobsmacked” is stunned, taken completely aback, utterly astonished.

And despite what you may imagine about “gob,” it’s actually a clean term. Slang for “mouth,” the term “gob” apparently originated in Scotland but has been used in British slang for hundreds of years. (In the United States, “gob” mean something soft and lumpy, or is slang for a Navy sailor.) Put together, “gobsmacked” means the feeling of having been suddenly smacked in the mouth.

“Gobsmacked” and its close cousin “gobstruck” have appeared in U.S. publications more than two dozen times since September. The word is something new and different here—it hasn’t even made it into an American online slang dictionary yet, though an obscene “gob” suffix has—and so far has appeared mostly in quotes, some of them from people with British backgrounds. But the evocative term is likely to show up more and more.

At least it’s clean, even if it sounds otherwise. The same can’t be said of another Britishism, “wanker,” which appears in U.S. publications more frequently than “gobsmacked.” In this case, “wanker” means just what you think it means—someone who is fond of, um, let’s say self-love, or it could mean the object of his self-love. In British slang, “wanker” is usually applied to someone who is lazy, indolent, or contemptible, and almost always to someone who is male. But on this side of the Atlantic, it seems to be used more often to mean someone who is merely a jerk (a term originating in American slang), not a jerk-off. It’s unclear whether the people using it here know its derivation, or would care.

British slang has, of course, been incorporated into American slang for hundreds of years, and will continue to be. While there’s nothing un-American about using British slang, it’s important to know the derivation of the term in question to avoid unnecessary offense and to resist its use if an American audience wouldn’t understand it. While nearly every American knows “the loo” and “stiff upper lip” and all that, it’s not safe as houses to assume the same of all British slang.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.