Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Gormless protoplasm

I just had a brief e-mail exchange with a correspondent (US, I think) who was very amused by my use of the word "gormless", not having encountered it before (no reason to - it is a Britishism). A word I've known from childhood, I love it for its sheer insultingness - its implication not merely of stupidity, but of inept and pitiably-baffled stupidity - and the discussion prompted me to look into the background.

The Oxford English Dictionary tracks it back to the dialect form gaumless / gawm(b)less, where the "gaum" part means "heed, notice, understanding" and goes back to Old Norse gaum-r (masculine), gaum (feminine). From that, I assumed "gormless" must be an old word on the decline, but Google Books Ngram Viewer produced a surprise ...

click to enlarge - gormless 1870-2000
... which is that "gormless" has seen a steady rise in print use since around 1920, taking off dramatically from the competing dialect forms "gawmless" and "gaumless":

click to enlarge - gormless,gaumless,gawmless 1870-2000
Why the word should suddenly catch on in the mainstream is anyone's guess (see the addenda, below, on this). Why it should catch on in that spelling is perhaps more explicable, in that "gaum-" and "gawm-" are pretty peculiar in terms of standard English orthography, whereas "gorm-" (pronounced /ɡɔːm/ in the non-rhotic RP English) is  a normal-looking way of rendering the sound very well. With "gaum" coming from Old Norse, you'd expect "gormless" and its precursors to have a Northern English origin - a relic of the Danelaw era - and they do. Quite apart from appearing in Wuthering Heights ...
Did I ever look so stupid: so "gaumless," as Joseph calls it?
- Heathcliff
... the "gaumless" / "gawmless" forms appear from the early 19th century in a number of northern English regional dialect glossaries and the occasional work of regionally-set fiction (Google search on "gaumless" OR "gawmless").

I thought for a moment I'd beaten the OED's first citation (1883) for the form "gormless" - Google Books produced a handful of earlier hits. But I soon found that the majority of 19th century hits arose from a murk of amusing optical character recognition errors, mostly for "germless":
But there are real occurrences only a little later than the OED's, such as the English Dialect Society's 1886 documentation of "GORMLESS, adj. dull, stupid" in Stockport dialect (see A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Chester, Robert Holland, Pub. for the English Dialect Society, by Trübner & Co., 1886, Internet Archive ID aglossarywordsu00hollgoog).

By complete coincidence, this ties in with the current Language Log post by Mark Liberman, Ngram morality. When Google Ngram Viewer was launched - see Google Books N-gram - wow! - one of the aspects that was hyped was its potential for "culturomics": quantitative research into social trends as reflected in language: this was outlined in the paper Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books (Science, 14 January 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6014 pp. 176-182).

This is a powerful idea, when the results are interpreted with a lot of caution (I described previously - When pufh comef to fhove - how an apparently robust pre-Victorian era when it was OK to use the word "fuck" in print is entirely an artifact of the word "suck" being printed with a long-s as "ſuck").

But as Professor Liberman and others have discussed, there are those, often seeking confirmation for some world-view, who are ready to wade in with no such caution. One of the dubious forms of analysis is the completely simplistic conclusion that the frequency of a concept mentioned in print is a direct indicator of how that concept applies in society. By that line of argument, the steady rise of "gormless" over the past century means society has become more gormless over that time.

Ngram morality looks at a current op-ed column by the NY Times pundit David Brooks, who applies precisely the same reasoning, based on several like-minded papers, to conclude that society is going to the dogs, as evidenced by the rise and fall of certain words.

Addendum 2:
Martyn Cornell of Zythophile has offered in the comments a theory on the rise of "gormless".
It may or may not be a coincidence that the rise of "gormless" begins at about the same time as the rise of BBC radio: could it be because Northern English comedians were introducing the word to southerners, who took it up with enthusiasm? More research needed ...
This looks a very good start. I don't have any evidence of his using it, but the comedy persona of the immensely popular George Formby was regularly described as "gormless".

- Ray


  1. Interesting.

    I, too, love the word ... picked up from my (Black Country) father. My affection for it may be rooted in the fact that I only heard it in affectionate teasing use, such as "come on, don't sit there looking gormless - we'll miss all the fun!"

    When I think about it, now, I can't specifically think of examples of hearing anyone else use it - though I occasionally do so myself, usually light heartedly (in other words: as I learned it)

  2. It may or may not be a coincidence that the rise of "gormless" begins at about the same time as the rise of BBC radio: could it be because Northern Engl;ish comedians were introducing the word to southerners, who took it up with enthusiasm? More research needed ...

  3. Thanks, Martyn - that looks an extremely plausible theory. This was the era of George Formby.