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I always thought that “mouth worked” describes when someone moves their mouth as if they are speaking, but no sound is emitted. This happens when they are so surprised that that they don’t know what to say.

For example:

He was shocked at his ex-girlfriend’s question. His mouth worked. He couldn’t answer.

Is this a common meaning of the phrase?

I did a google search and found this reference.

Also, what is the etymology? Did it evolve from another usage?

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closed as general reference by tchrist, MετάEd, Carlo_R., Matt Эллен, Kris Nov 23 '12 at 11:07

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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Search fail? Google gives me many examples. Try for example the search [ "mouth worked but" ]. –  MετάEd Nov 21 '12 at 14:11

1 Answer 1

The verb to work has a wide range of meanings. In OP's context it has aspects of (from OED)..

To move (something) into or out of some position, or with alternating movement (to and fro, up and down, etc.): usually with some implication of force exerted against resistance or impediment. Also fig.

In humorous or trivial use, implying vigorous action of some kind.

I don't know why OP could only find one reference on the whole Internet. Here are a couple of thousand instances of "his mouth worked but {no sound came out}" in Google Books.

I see no reason to suppose this usage "evolved" from some earlier form. Personally I'd say the sense is literal rather than metaphoric. But an equally common alternative is "his mouth moved {but no sound came}", so I suppose one could say using "worked" carries more of a sense that the mouth itself is attempting (and failing) to form words.

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