My friend Andrew Feinberg e-mailed me as follows:

I just came upon the following in a new book called “The Escape Artists:  How Obama’s Team Fumbled the Recovery,” by Noam Scheiber.  On page 41 Scheiber writes:  “Simply put, Summers believed that a $1.2 trillion proposal, to say nothing of $1.8 trillion, would be dead on arrival in Congress because of the political resistance to such gob-stopping sums.”

Personally, I was gob-smacked by this locution and so startled that I gobbed on my carpet.  Where it all will end knows Gob.
For the record, Scheiber was a Rhodes scholar.  Have you come across “gob-stopping” before?

Well, no–and neither, I discovered, has the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED does, however, have an entry for gobstopper, to wit: “a large, hard, freq. spherical sweet for sucking.” Fans of Roald Dahl may recall the “Everlasting Gobstopper” featured in “Charley and the Chocolate Factory” and the subsequent film “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Is Noam Scheiber alone in making a sweet into an adjective having nothing to do with sweets? Well, no again. It has been used a total of three times by The Times (of London), most recently this by A.A. Gill in October 2011: “…if you ask me, and I suppose you are, to recommend just one gobstopping, heart-racing dinner in all of London, it would be Hedone.”

Moving to the New York Times (of New York), it appears exactly once, in a 2007 quote from the blogger Sara Robinson: “Reading [Steven] Gilley on NYC was like reading Molly Ivins on Texas. You could only sit back, mute, at the gobstopping wonder of it all.”

Gobstopping and the phrase a gobstopper of a show up occasionally in various internet outposts, generally meaning something along the lines of astounding or amazing. (If you have tender sensibilities, I suggest you do not read the entries at Urban Dictionary, which are very different.)

My best guess is that gobstopping happened because gobsmacked doesn’t easily converty to an adjective meaning that which causes one to be or feel gobsmacked. But behold, gobstopper already existed, and the suffix -stopping did, too, in such words as heart-stopping and show-stopping. Hence, gobstopping.

Make sense, Andrew?

8 thoughts on ““Gobstopping”

  1. Sounds like balls to me (excuse the pun). If one is going to make up a word, why not just go with “gobsmacking”? Silly, silly, silly!

  2. In the UK a Jawbreaker is a different sweet. A gobstopper is a solid sweet while a jawbreaker is a brand name for a similar sweet with a chewy bubblegum centre.

  3. The writer meant “gobsmacking sums,” I’m convinced. Gobstopping makes no sense. Gobsmacking is a bloody brilliant word, you must agree.

  4. Sounds like parallel evolution to me. ‘Gob’ is recognized as a noun in its own right, and English accepts agglutination as a way to invent new words.

    The etymological reasoning behind ‘gob-stopping’ is essentially the same as that behind ‘gobstopper’, so it would take a special flavor of prescriptivism to declare one formation valid and the other invalid.

    For an existing phrase that carries a similar meaning, see: “well shut my mouth!”

  5. The point about gobstoppers, which I remember fondly, was their size – so big that they would stop, i.e. fill, your gob. Which would render you speechless. Makes more sense to me than ‘gob-smacking’.

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