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.

5 responses to “gobbet

  1. Interesting. I wonder what Chaucer is up to in giving the Pardoner a “gobet” of the sail from St. Peter’s boat.

  2. My possibly (and maybe only, before today) encounter with this word was in Anne McCaffrey’s first Pern book, Dragonflight. I don’t remember any more of the context than the phrase ‘gobbets of meat’, which I guess is somewhat redundant (though I’m glad it was, for I doubt I’d have worked out what she meant without the qualifier). It’s even possible she used the phrase multiple times; her dragons eat plenty of meat…

  3. It’s one of those truly ugly words, and like many ugly words, it’s hard to exactly pin down the reason, although I can come close; the phlegm collocation suits. It’s part of a list I’ve been making whick includes words like shite and feck, scrape and slime. I could list gobs more, but I’d rather not.

  4. Pingback: giblet | Sesquiotica

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