Google Books has 1000 hits. Not a lot but not few either.

Is it safe to use this phrase in informal writing? Example sentenc:

I stared at the boy's long face and body, short of words.

closed as unclear what you're asking by FumbleFingers, Edwin Ashworth, Mark Beadles, Nigel J, Davo Oct 31 '17 at 12:18

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    So are you asking about "short for words" or "short of words"? I think what you are looking for is "at a loss for words". – Mark Beadles Oct 30 '17 at 16:29
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    "Short for words" is sometimes used with the same meaning as "at a loss for words". In the above passage, however, either could be confused to imply that the boy was silent. – Hot Licks Oct 30 '17 at 16:54
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    @Mark Beadles: - or speechless. Thinking about it, I suppose if you'd just been punched in the mouth, you'd probably have trouble articulating words even if you could think of them - hence gobsmacked. – FumbleFingers Oct 30 '17 at 17:03

The mention of "at a loss for" in Hot Licks's comment above provides what I think is the key to understanding the origin of "short for words": it is an amalgam of "at a loss for words" and "short of words," both of which are more widely used and more firmly established in everyday English, to judge from this Ngram chart of "short for words" (blue line) versus "short of words" (red line) versus "at a loss for words" (green line) for the period 1800–2008:

A look at the actual Google Books matches for these three phrases confirms that "at a loss for words" is far more common than the other two, that "short of words" has upward of forty confirmable matches (in the relevant sense) in the Google Books database, and "short for words" has only five confirmable matches in the same database.

Consistent with this hypothesis, Gerald Cohen, Syntactic Blends in English Parole (1987) [combined snippets] lists "short for words" as an amalgam (or as he calls it, a "syntactic blend") of "at a loss for words" and "short of words":

  1. 'be short for words' In: 'I'm never short for words.'

a. I'm never at a loss for words.

b. I'm never short of words.

Cohen's book identifies a lengthy series of phrases of similarly mixed parentage.

  • Thanks for the detailed answer. But I'm a bit confused. So, should I use short for words or short of words? – alex Oct 31 '17 at 6:24
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    If you want to follow majority usage, you should use either "short of words" or "at a loss for words"—both are beyond suspicion as phrases in mainstream English. – Sven Yargs Oct 31 '17 at 6:28

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