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Online Etymology dictionary suggests it's "likely an arbitrary formation from flabby or flapper and aghast". I'm wondering if anyone has any more insight.

  • Would downvoters care to comment? – Lunivore Dec 26 '11 at 13:02
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Here’s the OED’s etymological note (lightly edited):

First mentioned in 1772 as a new piece of fashionable slang; possibly of dialectal origin; Moor 1823 records it as a Suffolk word, and Jamieson, Supplement 1825, has flabrigast, 'to gasconade' [to boast extravagantly], flabrigastit 'worn out with exertion', as used in Perthshire. The formation is unknown; it is plausibly conjectured that the word is an arbitrary invention suggested by flabby adj. or flap n. and aghast adj.

  • 2
    Thank you! And thank you also for "gasconade" - new vocab for Christmas, perfect. – Lunivore Dec 26 '11 at 11:18
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Here's a little elaboration on the same from Quinion's WWW:

It turns up first in print in 1772, in an article on new words in the Annual Register. The writer couples two fashionable terms: “Now we are flabbergasted and bored from morning to night”. (Bored — being wearied by something tedious — had appeared only a few years earlier.) Presumably some unsung genius had put together flabber and aghast to make one word.

The source of the first part is obscure. It might be linked to flabby, suggesting that somebody is so astonished that they shake like a jelly. It can’t be connected with flapper, in the sense of a person who fusses or panics, as some have suggested, as that sense only emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. But flabbergasted could have been an existing dialect word, as one early nineteenth-century writer claimed to have found it in Suffolk dialect and another — in the form flabrigast — in Perthshire. Further than this, nobody can go with any certainty.

And here's the clip from the above-mentioned 1772 Annual Register:

Annual Register clip

  • thank you very much. I have already selected a good answer I'm afraid but would have loved to give this one the honor! Upvote all the same. – Lunivore Jan 3 '12 at 13:11
  • @Lunivore: No worries. Just adding bits here and there for the benefit of all. – Callithumpian Jan 3 '12 at 22:17
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Just an idea: I wonder if "flabbergast" has anything to do with OE frófregást (Old High German fluobargeist), a word meaning literally "consoler" or "comforter" and coined to translate the Greco-Latin paracletus which sometimes refers to the Holy Spirit in Vulgate translations of the New Testament. It is easy to imagine the possibly playful coinage of a participial form "flabbergasted" that would originally have meant to be somehow overwhelmed or dumbstruck by the Holy Spirit, the modern usage having completely lost any specifically religious connotation.

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Note that French translation of verb "flabbergast" is given in many reputable dictionaries as "estomaquer", meaning "hit in the stomach" (cf. gaster/gastros = stomach/estomac in ancient Greek), which gives credence to "flabber" coming from "flappen" = hit in Dutch. The suggestion that it comes from "flabby" + "aghast" is totally fanciful.

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It's pretty obvious and supported by historical corpora that it is simple sound metathesis.

For example, it is well known that the term butterfly, which has the false folk-etymology of a fly that likes butter, comes from metathesis of the periphrastic descriptive 'flutter by' (the natural action of the insect).

In a similar manner, 'flabbergast' has the tenuous folk etymology mentioned already when in reality, it comes from the more salient but archaic 'glabberfast' combining a variant of 'glabrous', meaning 'smooth' to the point of speechlessness and 'fast' (for not having eaten), with the intention that you are so surprised it's like you're so hungry you're speechless.

  • Learn something every day. – Drew Mar 4 '18 at 0:02
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I concur with the reference to the Holy Spirit. gast, gust, ghast and ghost are surely pointing in the same windy direction as spirit or breath of life, which is also latent in inspire, respire, expire. We find "he gave up the ghost" in some versions of the Bible. We use ghost, ghostly and ghastly in the same context spiritual beings -- phantoms. As for flabber, surely flutter is a possible cognate for the shudder or intake of breath we do when startled or taken aback (again referencing wind). I'd like to hear from someone with German and possibly Scandinavian language ability, where wind and spirit seem as closely connected as they are in English.

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I read the above etymology with interest, but see no reference to the possible metamorphosis of "To Gasp", i.e. the sudden intake of breathe at an astonishing fact. This combined with the {as mentioned} "To Flabby/ flabber" 'wobbly or jelly-like' instability. Things have Frequently passed from One consonant to another via mis-interpretation of manuscript writings. In this case the 'p' could be misconstrued as a 'T' and continued as such.

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    Welcome to EL&U! Thank you for your answer. It could be greatly improved by some references, since Stack Exchange is not a place for original research. – A Lambent Eye Dec 18 '18 at 16:43
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Surely this word is related to being dumb struck. The Dutch Flappen being struck, hit or physical blow and the aghast part being without breath. Surely a gasp - a sharp intake of breath confirms this as does the word Slap.

  • Hi @RobertNash, welcome to ELU! This is an interesting observation; do you have any documented evidence for it, or is it just based on your own understanding of the words? – Hellion Mar 13 at 12:15

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