The controversial origin of “gawker”

Gawker, the news and media gossip site, has shut down after 13 years. Gawker has had an influential, if controversial, voice in the online journalism and blogging landscape. And Gawker has had a distinctive name, suggesting a can’t-look-away amazement it experienced (or wanted its readers to) over the many stories it covered.

Gawker

A gawker is “one who gawks,” or stares at something, often openly, stupidly, or stunned. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records it in 1951. It cites its base, to gawk, in 1785.  (Gawk also referred to “an awkward person” in the early 1800s. The history of this word is likely enmeshed with our word at hand.) The ultimate origin of gawker is obscure, but there are many theories.

1. Gaw

One explanation is that gawk comes from an obsolete verb, gaw, “to stare.” This derives from the Middle English gaw. Etymologists point us to a Scandinavian source, like the Old Norse , “to heed.” But what about the k? Perhaps it has a frequentative force, behaving like the k in talk, which is rooted in tale.

2. Gawk hand

A gawk hand is a “left hand.” The OED finds this adjective in 1703. This gawk is contracted from an older form, gallock. Variants include gaulick and gaulish. Some have supposed this gallock to come from gauche, the French for “left.” Others, that the gaulish form points back to an old insult against French, left-handedness long carrying negative, even evil, associations. Gawk-handed has connoted a clumsiness, which, if this theory is correct, was apparently likened to the stupid gape of a gawk.

3. Gowk

A third origin could be gowk, an old term for a “cuckoo.” The word has Scandinavian, and perhaps even Latin, cognates. Old English had géac, Old Norse had gaukr, for this onomatopoeic bird name, which has mocked many a “fool” or “simpleton” in its history. Gowk ribbed the “half-wit” in English by the 1600s, which would explain its possible connection to the slack-jawed gape of gawking.

Scholar Anatoly Liberman favors this explanation, thinking it’s rooted in the structure gk, whose sound supposedly conveys a sense of stupefaction. This structure might also be behind the work geek. And gaw and gallock may well have had their influence on gawk as we know it.

Some may think the etymology of gawk fitting for the late website. They were “clumsy,” no “cuckoo,” to post the privacy-violating content they did. Others will deem think it sad and stupid, given the positive effects Gawker has had on media, journalism, and online writing, that they site shut down. Etymology, alas, doesn’t always create agreement.

m ∫ r ∫

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