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?

  • 1
    Search fail? Google gives me many examples. Try for example the search [ "mouth worked but" ].
    – MetaEd
    Nov 21, 2012 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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