Thursday, 8 January 2009

Gutted, Gobsmacked and Bewildered

Last year a lady wrote to The Local Rag to deplore the ‘bad grammar’ so prevalent among the Youth of Today. ‘My old English mistress’ she said, ‘would have been horrified at such dreadful words as ‘gobsmacked and ‘gutted’. Whatever happened to ‘astonished’ and ‘appalled?’

I thought about replying, but decided against it. There isn’t much point in arguing with conservative ladies in The Local Rag on any issue, and especially with the Defenders of Our Language. Disagreeing with them on such matters is, in their eyes, a sign of irresponsibility – and him an English teacher as well! So here instead is what I would have liked to say.

First of all, chill, bitch - nothing has happened to ‘astonished’ and 'appalled’. You may still use them, and they can’t touch you for it. Second of all, as my students like to say, the matter under discussion is vocabulary, not grammar, a distinction any Defender of Language ought to be able to draw. There is nothing grammatically wrong with either of these sentences:

‘I was totally gobsmacked.’
‘Tracy was absolutely gutted.’

In each one we notice the speaker’s intuitive awareness that ‘gobsmacked’ and ‘gutted’ are ‘extreme adjectives’ like ‘starving’ and ‘amazed’, and that they must therefore be matched with adverbs that pack an equal punch. You wouldn’t say *‘I’m very starving’ or *‘I’m slightly amazed’, and so you don’t say ‘She was very gobsmacked’ or ‘I was a bit gutted’, even if you are Jade Goody. ‘Young people’ often know more about grammar than Defenders of Language do.

With vocabulary, there are considerations of connotation and appropriacy. Just clock the sheer slamming brute strength of these words! ‘Gobsmacked’ sounds so much more thoroughly, comprehensively astounded than ‘astonished’. It conveys with near physical force the idea that some event hit you out of the blue and left you reeling. ‘Gutted’ is so, well, visceral, that it expresses shock and desolation, in the part where you feel them, with several times the impact of ‘appalled’, a poor choice of synonym anyway - isn’t ‘devastated’ a bit closer?

This is not to say that you can use ‘gutted’ and ‘gobsmacked’ in all situations. Young people need to be made aware that they are best excluded from A level essays:
‘When Creon won’t let her brother be buried, Antigone’s gutted, she’s like what?’
‘Othello listens to what Iago tells him about his bird, that she's like a right slag an that, and he’s gobsmacked, innit?’

Highly inappropriate, although substitute ‘appalled’ in the above samples and the effect is no better. It makes it sound as though Antigone is determined to write to The Local Rag and say her piece, and Othello obviously proposes to give Desdemona a dashed good talking to.

Native speakers are often poor sources of information on their own language. Defenders of our Language should not be allowed near a classroom until they have been thoroughly reconstituted and purged of all notions that language use must be ‘correct’ and ‘nice’. In the last post I threw in the Greek idiom ‘δάγωσα το καβλί μου’ [dágosa to kavli mou] for ‘I’m frozen stupid’. It means ‘I’ve bitten my dick’. Before I published the post I wanted to check that I had got the right informal word for the male member, as there are several contenders. I texted a Greek friend to ask him what the exact idiom was.

‘Το δάγωσα’ [to dágosa] he replied, ‘I’ve bitten it’, this being the abbreviated and sanitised version. I pressed him for the full phrase: should I use καβλί [kavli] or πούτσος [poutsos] for the bitten member?

‘They mean the same, Steve. And it’s not an idiom, its slang’ he answered, and somehow I could hear along with the SMS a rather weary sigh at my ignorance and smutty mind. The implication that after twenty-five years I did not know that kavli and poutsos were synonymous irritated me mildly, for they are surely basic to any man-loving man’s vocabulary. I decided, after a period of smouldering had elapsed, to forgive the suggestion that I didn’t know what an idiom was either, as he had probably interpreted it to mean ‘proverb’. A later SMS said that he disapproved of the idiom because it was ‘street language’.

I know it's bloody street language. I’m all for street language, whether in the street, or in any other situation where its physicality and salaciousness and cleverness can be enjoyed. I would be quite appalled if the Defenders of our Language in The Local Rag got their way and we lost nice ballsy words like ‘gobsmacked’ and ‘gutted’. Fortunately there is no chance of that, and there are plenty more where they came from.


Bo said...

I note that 'gutted' - for all that you make the case for its visceral power - is undergoing a slow deflation of effect, so that it now means something more like 'disappointed and a bit glum'.

Enjoying the blog as ever.

vilges suola said...

Really? I suppose I spend too much time alone or among non-native speakers to have noticed. Have you heard anything that seems likely to take its place?

Thanks for the nice comment!

Anonymous said...

As an English teacher, i'm flabbergasted!


vilges suola said...

What about?


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