It’s all fun and games til someone gets flabbergasted.
I discovered this today when, having mulled over this fun little word for several days, I was flabbergasted myself.
I was in a camera shop on the main street of Bourg St Maurice, attempting to get my camera repaired. A couple of days ago I had tried to turn it off, and the lens had stuck, refusing to budge despite my gentle coercion. The shopkeeper informed me that my camera’s lens had stopped working for an unknown reason, and that as it is the most expensive part of the camera, it would cost more to repair it than to buy a new one. My camera should be put in the bin (yes, this is what he said). I was flabbergasted. Shocked. Amazed.
At first I wasn’t sure if he was genuine. I mean, he worked in a camera shop after all. It was in his interest for me to believe it was more economic to buy a new one than ship my old one off for repair. The fact that I’m still not convinced of his expertise or honesty may reveal more about me than I would like . . . in any case, I’m not ready to throw the camera in the bin! What a flabbergasting notion.
Last week, when I tried to imagine the possible origins of flabbergasted, this is what I came up with: take the word and divide it in two. The result is flab and gast (or aghast). That is, flab – soft, fatty body tissue, the type which tends to wobble back and forth in the jowl or tricep region; and ahgast – struck by shock, amazement or terror. Of course I wrote this whole explanation off as cute but thoroughly implausible, fanciful even. That is, until I searched online to find that actually, I wasn’t too far off the mark.
Flabbergasted has been in use since it appeared in the Register of New Words in 1772. Hard to imagine that at that time, this odd-sounding word was considered a chic little number employed by the funky and with it.
Since then, most explanations of its origins seem to employ the same two-part approach that I did. It seems to be agreed that the ‘flab’ is derived from flabby, a variant of flappy. This could refer to either the flapping motion of a flabby person moving (that’s not very nice!), or the flap that people get into when an exciting event is imminent . . . in 19th Century England, that is. For example: ‘Oh dear, they were in quite a flap before the bachelors arrived at the manor’.
The ‘gast’ is equally exciting! I found references to the Old English word gast, meaning spirit, which also gives us ghastly and ghost. This then leads us to the Middle English word gasten, meaning to terrify, which also lead to aghast. Which gives us the element of shock, amazement and surprise in flabbergasted. So there you have it, a brief exposé of the history of flabbergasted.
I think I mentioned that flabbergasted was once a funky word. I don’t know how you feel, but from my perspective, it’s lost its edge in recent times. It seems to me to be kind of unwieldy. A bit, dare I say it . . . lame.
Turns out that I need to get with the times. In 2005, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival Catherine Lockerbie was quoted as saying “I’m flabbergasted that the Rushdie wasn’t on the list” in reference to Salman Rushdie’s ‘Shalimar The Clown’ being skipped over for Man Booker Prize. If Ms Lockerbie, director of one of the more celebrated international book festivals (and therefore obviously literate and eloquent) deems flabbergasted usable, I think we ought to follow suit.
Lighten the tone of serious political conversations by exclaiming ‘I think it’s flabbergasting that the government hasn’t managed to resolve the issue of the national health care system this far into their term.’
Ease an awkward first date moment – you know the one where you’ve just come out of a film and have to actually talk? ‘I was flabbergasted at the special effects! I’d heard Avatar was amazing, but wow!’
Follow the lead of the British comedian Frankie Howerd, who used to say in mock astonishment: ‘I’m flabbergasted — never has my flabber been so gasted!’.
Get street slang: Flab ma’ gast, yo sista be datin my homeboy o’ wha’?
Use your imagination! There are plenty of options with this handy word which is well overdue for a mod revamp.
In peace and wordliness 🙂
Big thanks to Isa of Bellentre, who alerted me to the strange coolness of the word flabbergasted. Thanks so much for your warmth and hospitality! Look forward to seeing you again.