11 Obscure Expressions of Surprise We Should Bring Back

Hulton Archive / Stringer // Getty Images
Hulton Archive / Stringer // Getty Images

Gobsmacked people commonly say “Wow!” or “Oh!” or “Holy excrement!” But shock, dismay, and astonishment are such common experiences that English has a plethora of exclamations to shout when taken aback. If you’re easily startled or just need some alternatives to “By the hammer of Thor!” and “Damn!,” read on for some old-timey outbursts.

1. AND 2. GUP AND GIP

Gup was a word directed in anger toward a horse back in the 1500s. Like many exclamations, gup drifted toward surprise over the years. Both meanings have also been conveyed by the word gip.

3. HOLY PRETZEL

As we learned from Burt Ward’s portrayal of the boy wonder Robin in the 1960s, any word can be an exclamation of astonishment if paired with holy, including this salty snack. Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS) records this one in Frederick Kohner’s 1963 book The Affairs of Gidget: “Holy pretzel! My face got aflame like paprika.”

4. I'LL BE JITTERBUGGED

Claude McKay used this term in his 1948 book Harlem Glory: A Fragment of American Life: “Suddenly he said: ‘I’ll be jitterbugged [...] Why, if it ain’t the big Buster himself.’” This meaning deserves wider use, as we could always use another word like gobsmacked.

5. STIFFEN THE WOMBATS

A number of strange-sounding Australian exclamations mentioned in Sidney J. Baker’s 1945 book The Australian Language deserve a comeback: “Here are some well-established variations on the theme to show that we have not been idle even in simple matters: speed the wombats! stiffen the lizards! stiffen the snakes! and stiffen the wombats!

6. AND 7. MY ELBOW AND MY WIG

Jonathon Green’s tremendous GDoS records this term in the UK since the early 1900s: It’s a euphemistic version of “My ass!” This is a natural expression since, according to idiom, these are the two most easily confused body parts. A similar expression is “My wig!” Sometimes folks get a little more verbose with this one, yelling, “My wig and whiskers!” or “My wigs and eyes!” The short version appeared in 1848, in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist: “‘Oh my wig, my wig!’ cried Master Charles Bates.”

8. PIMINY

Quite a few of these terms are minced oaths, which turn God and Jesus into more acceptable terms. This one is a euphemism squared. Piminy is an alternation of Jiminy, which has been used since the early 1800s (especially in the form Jiminy Christmas) to avoid saying Jesus Christ. In 1912, an article from Ohio’s Newark Advocate used the term in an example presumably designed to mimic a regional accent: “Jumping piminy, wat a hevy trunk.”

9. ZOOKERS

Speaking of minced oaths, here’s another, found in print since the 1600s. This is one of several variations of gadzooks, such as zooks, gadzookers, zoodikers, and zoonters. All these words mean “By God!” but exist due to the taboo surrounding God’s name. In William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1854 novel The Flitch of Bacon, the term is used to express dismay at an alarming marital situation: “I've ... Seen him make love to another woman.’ ‘To Mrs. Nettlebed?’ ‘Zookers! no.’”

10. FISHHOOKS

In Vermont, “Oh fishhooks!” is an exclamation of surprise, according to the wonderful Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).

11. GOSH ALL HEMLOCK

DARE provides yet another testimony to English’s exclamatory versatility, quoting a 1959 book on the history of Vermont, which lists a colorful assortment of expressions: “Gosh all Fiddlesticks! ... Gosh all Filox! ... Gosh all Firelocks! ... Gosh all Frighty! ... Gosh all Fishhooks! ... Gosh all Hemlock! ... Gosh all Hemlocks and chew spruce gum! ... Gosh all Tarnation! ... Gosh all sufficiency!”

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

iStock.com/VectorStory
iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

11 Little-Known Words for Specific Family Members

iStock.com/kali9
iStock.com/kali9

The words we use for family members in English are specific about some things, and vague about others. Our vocabulary marks a distinction between our mother and her sisters (some languages use one word for mother and maternal aunts), but doesn't say whether siblings are older or younger (some languages have different words for brother and sister depending on their age relative to you). We lack words that pick out particular family members (we have cousin, but what about child-of-my-father's-brother?) as well as certain general terms (we have siblings for brothers-and-sisters, but what about nieces-and-nephews?)

If you look hard enough, you can find some words to help fill in the gaps. Here are 11 unusual English kinship words for family members.

1. Patruel

This one means "child of your paternal uncle." Also, a child of your own brother. It hasn't gotten a lot of use in the past few centuries, but it was once convenient to have a term for this relationship because it factored into royal succession considerations. The first citation for it in the OED, from 1538, reads, "Efter his patruell deid withoutin contradictioun he wes king."

2. Avuncle

Your mother's brother. Latin distinguished between patruus, father's brother, and avunculus, mother's brother. (There was also amita, father's sister, and matertera, mother's sister.) It's the root of the word avuncular, meaning "having to do with uncles" or "uncle-like" (i.e., kind and friendly, like an uncle). You won't find the word avuncle in the dictionary, but it has been used in anthropology texts and in papers concerning royal matters.

3. Niblings

Your nieces and nephews. You won't find this in the dictionary either, but use of this term seems to be growing among favorite aunts and uncles who want an easy way to refer to their little bundles of sibling-provided joy in a collective or gender-neutral way.

4. Fadu

Your father's sister. Latin amita covers this relationship, but we don't have to reach that far back to find an English equivalent. Old English made a distinction between aunts and uncles depending on whether they were maternal or paternal. We lost all that when we borrowed the more general aunt and uncle from French.

5. Modrige

"Your mother's sister," from Old English.

6. Fœdra

"Your father's brother," from Old English.

7. Eam

Your mother's brother. It survived in some dialects as eme, with a more general meaning of uncle or friend, into the 19th century.

8. Brother-uterine

Your half-brother from the same mother. This is a term used in old legal documents or other discussions of inheritance and succession. Half-siblings of the same mother are uterine and of the same father are consanguine.

9. Brother-german

Full brother, sharing both parents. Nothing to do with Germany. The german here is related to germane, which originally meant "of the same parents" and later came to mean just related or relevant.

10. Double cousin

Full first cousin, sharing all four grandparents. This comes about when a pair of sisters marries a pair of brothers, among other circumstances.

11. Machetonim

The parents of your child's spouse. Your child's in-laws. Ok, this is a Yiddish word, but one that, like a lot of Yiddish words, has poked its way into English because it fills a gap. When it comes to marriage, this can be a very important relationship, so it’s good to have a word for it. If your parents get along with their machetonim, the family—the whole mishpocheh—will be happier.

This story was republished in 2019.

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