Flabbergast. F-L-A-B-B-E-R-G-A-S-T. Flabbergast.
This would make a good spelling bee word, wouldn’t it? Other than its being reasonably well known and predictable. It sounds long and floppy and loosely jointed, garrulous as a flibbertigibbet, frenetic as a flutterbudget, verbally flabby and flatulent (gaseous) and ultimately aghast.
Well, especially aghast. The word may be fluttering and rubbery but its meaning is slackjawed: “to overwhelm with shock, surprise, or wonder,” to quote Merriam-Webster (m-w.com). The Oxford English Dictionary shows us a nice quotation well suited to our times: “Now we are flabbergasted and bored from morning to night.” That does seem the incessant go-round of digitally mediated modernity, no? But this observation was made in 1773, in the Annual Register for 1772, in a jeremiad on faddish new words, signed “Observator,” and the author was inveighing not on the state of life but just on the words used to speak of it.
So flabbergasted (and flabbergast) was new in 1772. Where did it come from? There has been speculation and there have been observations – related forms in Suffolk and Perthshire – but no one knows (yet). It is likely a collision of flabby and aghast and who knows what else, formed on the basis of sound symbolism and phonaesthetics on the nonce by some fashionable lark in London society and passed about as a bit of the latest lexical frippery.
And it has lasted, especially among those who love lively syllables. I had occasion to use it myself lately when I described a haul of prizes from a spelling bee. You see, the ACES (American Copy Editors’ Society) conference, in St. Petersburg, FL(abbergast), which I was attending, had a spelling bee sponsored by Lingofy, with officials from Merriam-Webster and Scripps, to raise money for the ACES Education Fund scholarship program. There were 15 entrants and a goodly audience. It went to 7 rounds, I think. And the last person standing, successfully spelling agelast, A-G-E-L-A-S-T, was… me. For which I won a nice little lucite trophy. And a Bananagrams game. And a copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, which weighs 18 pounds. And an iPad Pro. And a messenger bag to carry it all in (which I did, and was nearly Grendelized, disarticulated at the shoulder by the weight). Flabbergasting indeed.