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!”

13 Words That Changed From Negative to Positive Meanings (or Vice Versa)

grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

One of the main reasons for the existence of slang is to keep the outsiders from understanding the insiders. Making up new words is one way to achieve this, but it’s not the only one. A favorite trick for the young to play on the old is to take an established word and completely change its connotations from bad to good. In recent decades we’ve seen sick, wicked, ill, and bad recruited to the “hearty positive endorsement” side. While some would lament the decline of language suggested by such wanton disregard for word meaning, this kind of meaning switch is nothing new. Here are 13 fine, upstanding words that long ago switched from negative to positive (or vice versa).

1. Fun

Fun was first a verb meaning "to cheat or hoax." It came from fon, an old word for "fool." It still retains some of that sense in “make fun of,” but now also means "a merry good time."

2. Fond

Fond also goes back to fon, and it once meant "foolish and weak-minded." It came to then mean over-affectionate in a negative, cloying way. Now it’s positive, but at root, being fond of something is basically being a fool for it.

3. Terrific

The root of terrific is terror, and it first meant terror-inducing. It then became an exaggerated intensifier (“terrifically good!” = so good it’s terrifying) and then a positive term all on its own.

4. Tremendous

Like terrific, tremendous has its roots in fear. Something tremendous was so terrible it caused trembling or shaking. It also became an intensifier (“tremendously good!”) before it went all the way positive.

5. Awe

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, awe originally referred to “immediate and active fear.” It then became associated with religious, reverential fear, and then to a feeling of being humbled at the sublime. While awful retains the negative sense, awesome took on the positive one.

6. Grin

To grin was to bare the teeth in a threatening display of anger or pain. It then became the term for a forced, fake smile, before settling into an expression of happiness.

7. Smart

Smart was first used in Old English to describe things that cause pain. Weapons, nails, and darts were smart. Shakespeare’s Henry VI has the phrase “as smart as lizards’ stings.” It took on connotations of sharpness, quickness, intensity, and, through smart, pain-causing words or wit came to stand for quick intelligence and fashionableness.

8. Egregious

Egregious was a positive word that turned negative. It used to mean "eminent and distinguished," but because people started using it sarcastically, it came to mean "bad and offensive."

9. Sad

Sad started with the meaning of "satisfied or sated," also sometimes "steadfast" or "firm." It then went from meaning "serious," to "grave," to "sorrowful."

10. Smug

Smug first meant "crisp, tidy, and presentable." A well-dressed person was smug in this way, and it later came to mean "self-satisfied and conceited."

11. Devious

Devious comes from de via, "off the way." It once meant "distant" or "off the road." It took on the meaning of wandering—there were devious comets, devious minnows—and, because to do wrong was to stray from the right path, it eventually came to mean "scheming and deceitful."

12. Facetious

To be facetious was once to have elegant, gracious, high style, and to be jokey and witty. It came from a Latin term for playful humorousness. It is still connected with a type of humor, but with an unproductive or annoying connotation.

13. Bully

Bully used to be a term of endearment for men or women. A bully could be a good friend or a sweetheart. It then came to stand for a swaggering braggart and than a coward who picks on others.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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