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!”

10 Words and Phrases You Won’t Believe Are More Than 100 Years Old

iStock
iStock

They may have been on people’s tongues even earlier, but 1914 marks the earliest year the lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary could document these words and phrases in print.

1. DOOHICKEY

The Oxford English Dictionary cleverly tells us that this word is a blend of doodad and hickey, defining the latter as “any small gadget or device; something of little consequence.” (The meanings “pimple” and “love bite” came later.) An unnamed writer in the U.S. publication Our Navy, November 12, 1914, says, “We were compelled to christen articles beyond our ken with such names as ‘do-hickeys’, ‘gadgets’ and ‘gilguys.'”

2. POSTMODERNISM

You might think that in 1914 folks were barely modern; how could they be contemplating postmodernism? Modern means current day, so people have always thought themselves modern—well, at least since 1456. To be fair, though, the postmodernism of 1914 is not the same as the movement in architecture, arts and literature that arose in the late 20th century—the one that preached “freedom from the tyranny of the new,” allowing creative people to mix old styles in with new ones. In 1914, Postmodernism was a reaction to Modernism, a movement in the Roman Catholic Church toward modifying traditional beliefs and doctrines in accordance with modern ideas and scholarship.

3. TIME TRAVEL

It’s a bit of a quirk that the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t find printed evidence of the phrase time travel earlier than 1914; they trace time traveler to 1894. H.G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895 and he was quoted in the National Observer a year prior: “‘There,’ said the Time Traveller, ‘I am unable to give you an explanation. All I know is that the climate was very much warmer than it is now.’” (There’s no evidence that Wells coined the term global warming.)

4. ANTIVIRUS

In 1914, scientists knew only that viruses were infectious agents that could pass through filters that trapped bacteria, not that they typically consist of a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat. Nonetheless, they were working on ways to combat virus infections in organisms, and a Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club for 1914 reported, “It was his opinion that an antivirus … was thus formed in the lower, healthy leaves which destroyed or rendered inert the virus ... ”

5. ADVERTORIAL

Advertorial, a blend of advertisement and editorial, is an ad or promotional material disguised as an editorial or objective report. So, you’d think the term would be bandied about the offices of a publication, but not blatantly emblazoned in print. There it is, though, as a headline in Rotarian, May 14, 1914: “A word to the women folk. An advertorial.”

6. ATOMIC BOMB

In a 1914 issue of English Review, guess who was apparently the first person to write about the possibility of an atomic bomb? Yes, H.G. Wells again: “Never before ... had there been a continuing explosive ...; and these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.”

7. CHUNNEL

Although the Channel Tunnel linking England and France across the English Channel was not started until 1988 and was completed in 1994, the concept was conceived as early as 1802. In the February 4, 1914 issue of The Sketch, K. Howard declared, “Another word that will be stolen from me ... is ‘Chunnel.' This, naturally, will be the pet name for the Channel Tunnel when we get it.” He was right: In 1957, a writer for The New York Times Magazine claimed his newspaper coined the term.

8. BIG SCREEN

More than 100 years ago, before there was television with its small screen to provide contrast, the big screen already meant the movies. California's Fresno Morning Republican on October 24, 1914 reported, “The stage hands will devise noise effects to help carry out the illusion on the big screen.”

9. LIGHT SPEED

Even the popular press was talking about light speed a hundred years ago. Maryland's Frederick Post, February 25, 1914 wrote, “Measuring light speed. Even in this speed mad age we can never hope to equal the speed of light.”

10. OY VEY

You might think this Yiddish expression (literally, “Oh, woe") didn’t enter English until the 1950s, but in the New York Evening Journal, February 17, 1914, H Hershfield wrote, “I can't see a thing ... Worse then [sic] a fog. Oh Vay!”

This article originally appeared in 2014.

Supper vs. Dinner: Is There a Difference?

iStock
iStock

A linguist might be able to guess the general region you’re from based solely on what you call your evening meal. But as an article from Wide Open Eats explains, it isn’t just a matter of dialect. Dinner and supper really do mean different things—or at least they used to.

Historically, the word dinner was associated with the largest meal of the day, regardless of whether it was served in the morning, afternoon, or evening. The term comes from the non-Classical Latin word disjējūnāre, which is defined as breaking a fast.

Supper, on the other hand, is more time-specific. It stems from the Old French word souper, meaning an evening meal, and it's generally lighter than other meals served throughout the day. In other words, supper and dinner have more to do with the quantity of food that’s served than the time of day that you feast on them.

In the 1800s and perhaps even earlier, Americans in some rural regions started calling their midday meal dinner, while supper was reserved for the evening meal. This had more to do with occupation than location, though. In parts of the South and Midwest where farmers needed ample fuel to get them through the day, the midday meal was larger (hence the use of the term dinner). In the evening, supper typically involved a light soup, and the act of eating it was referred to as supping. Indeed, the word supper is related to suppe, the German word for soup.

This is still the norm in some parts of the U.S. As Wide Open Eats discovered through Google Trends, a search for “supper” is most common in Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa.

This is also the case in some parts of the South. “If you grew up in the South post-colonial era, however, chances are your association with the words have more to do with colloquial etymology, rather than the time of day you sat down to eat,” Southern Living notes. “For example, you probably heard, 'supper’s ready,' just before Mama or Grandma placed a table-full of delicious dishes before you.”

However, supper is seldom used anymore—especially among younger generations—and dinner is by far the more popular term nationwide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios