Daily Archives: January 30, 2013


My taste of this word is likely different from that of at least some other people, thanks to the context in which I first saw it.

Gobbet is not a common word, so if you see it used a certain way, that usage can make itself pretty comfy before it has too many occasions for it to be revised. Its strong tastes of other related words can play a role in this too. So when I first saw the phrase “gobbet of phlegm,” it was easy to picture a big gob of a loogie the size of a gobstopper being disgorged via someone’s disgusting gob (mouth), perhaps into a goblet.

It happens that, even though this sense does not appear as such in the dictionaries I’ve looked in, the collocation gobbet of phlegm has a certain currency – Google lists “about 29,200 results” when I search the exact phrase. If you search it, you will find quite a number of hits of fiction – gobbet is one of those words a person is unlikely to use in ordinary conversation but may take the occasion to drop into fiction with the idea that it will contribute to a rich, evocative literary style. Whether that idea is accurate I leave it to you to judge in each case in which you read it – Google it yourself and judge from the gobbets that appear.

No, no, I’m not being disgusting. The thing is, gobbet does not have ‘gob of phlegm’ as a standard (dictionary-recorded) sense. The sense in which I have just used it is a sense that has come into use in the past century: ‘brief literary fragment presented for analysis, translation, or discussion’.

But that is not the base sense. Let’s get to the meat of the matter: a gobbet is a mouthful of meat, or anyway a chunk of food the size of a mouthful – an amount you could hold in your mouth while saying gob but not while saying the et. The word comes from French gobet, related to the verb gober ‘swallow’. It’s been in English since the 1300s.

There really is something stuffed-mouth about that gob, isn’t there? And it has a kind of ugliness to it, too, manifest in goblin (which is unrelated). Even goblet, which bespeaks rich ornamentation, is – I find, anyway – much more susceptible to images of ugliness and fugxury than, say, chalice. Add that little tail et, which gives it perhaps a slightly more literary and less common air and echoes an imperative, “Gob it,” and you have a lexical equivalent of a gross lump with a little bow on top.

Of course you can speak of gobbets without being disgusting or thinking disgusting things; you can draw on the higher-toned influences of goblet, for one thing, and write of gobbets of meat and goblets of wine and then you just have a feast with gobs of food in the positive sense – something you can gobble gladly. You don’t need to go down the gross road. But it is easy to do so.

As witness the only definition for gobbet in Urban Dictionary, a source you can always count on to go down roads congenial to the minds of 14-year-old boys: “A chunk of human remains that has drifted ashore after a shipwreck disaster. From the old days when piracy was common, as was sighting dead bodies on the banks of the oceans.” I’m thinking whoever wrote that probably saw the word in just that one context – evidently a book on pirates, and one that we may suspect played up the gore somewhat – and from that inferred a greater specificity than actual usage reflects.

I must admit I’m surprised that Urban Dictionary doesn’t have anything on the phlegm sense. I take this as just more evidence that this is an uncommon word. Of course the phlegm sense is not recorded in dictionaries and so is not really a “proper” usage – more of a grabbing and stuffing according to sound association. But it’s not altogether inappropriate, as long as the amounts referred to are mouth-sized.


Visual: A not-too-long word with a lot of curves and a few straight lines. The ol looks a bit like the b mirrored in a ripply lake, or vice versa. Depending on type face, there may or may not also be some echoes of shape between the g and the a.

In the mouth: Not a crisp word, nor an especially fluid one – aside from the ending liquid /l/. It’s more of a leaping or capering word: in saying /gæmbəl/ you start at the back of your mouth and immediately bounce off the front, landing at last on the tip of the tongue and holding. The voiced stops and nasal give it a padded, perhaps gummy feel, though that is of course affected or overshadowed by the sense of the word.

Etymology: From the French gambade ‘leap, spring’, which comes from Italian gambata, from gamba, leg. There was probably some confusion between the ade ending and an auld ending leading to the current English form. It is not apparently related to gamble, though there may have been some cross-influence.

Collocations: Gambol is not a word that has specific travelling companions (no, not even take a gambol), though it is known to be used more with children and animals than with adults. It is also not a feature of many quotations, though Hamlet does use it in an odd way, to mean something more like ‘leap’ or ‘flee’: “Bring me to the test, And I the matter will re-word, which madness Would gambol from.” Elsewhere (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice) Shakespeare uses it in the more expected sense.

Overtones: The resemblance to gamble is unmistakeable and the possible cause of mistakes. This makes gambol a better word for writing than for saying, and when saying it one may overpronounce the second syllable for clarity. This word also has tastes of gumbo, gable, amble, and the whole family of mble words, such as crumble, tumble, humble, resemble, grumble, et cetera, plus symbol.

Semantics: Leap, spring, cut a caper – in dance, in sport, or wherever. Both noun and verb gambol exist.

Serve with: This word shows up here and there in places where you will think, “Hmm, that’s a word I don’t see all that often but that seems to take a nice bounding turn on the page.” It’s a high-toned way to speak of frolicsome movement, and it reinforces a literati in-group because it’s the sort of word that will likely be taken by “those who don’t know better” to refer to something else (specifically betting). Using it has the same kind of effect as a subtle name-drop: “While I was talking to Chomsky after his lecture, there were dogs gamboling in the park beyond the window.” You might say, thus, that it is a stylistic gambol – and a stylistic gamble.