Dear Word Detective: I am easily amazed. So it is nice to know that there are so many ways to express this bewildered state. I can choose, for example, to be “flummoxed,” “flabbergasted” or “gobsmacked,” depending on my state of stupefaction. Is it is a coincidence that all of these are such amazing words? Where did they come from? — Janis Landis.
Easily amazed, eh? I envy you. It must be nice to derive surprise from everyday life. Of course, it probably helps not to live in the middle of nowhere, as I do. There are only so many times “Look! A groundhog!” carries the thrill it first did. On the bright side, I remain, as my relatives will tell you, as easily amused as a small child, which comes in handy, given the current state of US culture. And although I’m not often “amazed” these days, I am frequently appalled, but that may be simply because reality keeps upping the ante.
The terms you mention are all fine words denoting various degrees of amazement, but before we get too far into the tall grass with them, it’s worth considering the word “amaze” itself. It comes from the Old English word “amasian,” which meant “to stupefy, to stun, to confuse,” and which may have been rooted in Old Norse. Our modern positive sense of “overcome with wonder, astonish” dates back only to the 16th century. The older “confuse, befuddle” sense of “amaze,” incidentally, gave us “maze” in the 15th century meaning “a structure designed as a puzzle, with a complex network of paths leading through it, only one of which actually leads out.”
“Flummox” is a very useful word, meaning not only “to confuse” but also “to confound,” i.e., to frustrate so much that the only course is to give up and abandon the task or goal. Unfortunately, the origins of “flummox,” which first appeared in print in the early 19th century, are a mystery. There is some evidence that it comes from an English country dialect, and it may originally have been “echoic,” imitating the sound of something thrown down in disgust and disorder on the ground.
“Flabbergast” is another useful word, meaning “to astonish; to render someone speechless with surprise” (“Bob was flabbergasted when the pizza he had ordered actually arrived hot”). “Flabbergast,” which first appeared (and was noted as then-fashionable slang in a magazine) in the late 18th century, is another mystery, but was most likely concocted as a combination of “flabby” or “flap” and “aghast” (which itself harks back to the Old English “gaest,” ghost). The original sense thus may have been of someone’s flab flapping or shaking with fear upon seeing an apparition. The proper term for the state of being “flabbergasted” is, incidentally, “flabbergastation,” which should come in handy next time oil prices go up.
There are two interesting things about “gobsmacked,” meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “Flabbergasted, astounded; speechless or incoherent with amazement.” The first is that “gobsmacked” is, thank heavens, not a mystery. It’s simply a combination of “gob,” very old English slang for the mouth or face, with “smack,” meaning “to strike with a slap or a blow.” (The roots of “gob” are, alas, slightly vague, but it probably comes from the Gaelic “gob,” meaning “beak or mouth.”) So to be “gobsmacked” is to be as surprised and amazed as if you had been struck in the mouth (“Won’t they be gobsmacked when you tell them that you wrote to me?”, 1989). The other noteworthy thing about “gobsmacked” is that, while it wouldn’t sound out of place in one of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s actually a very new word, first appearing in print in 1985. I won’t claim to have been “amazed” by that date, but it was a bit surprising.