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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) someone who stares absentmindedly at something

a canal boat on a rural English canal

HH tweeted the word gongoozler last week, defined by the English Dialect Dictionary as “an idle and inquisitive person who stands staring for prolonged periods at anything out of the common”:

And, well—it’s all just too strange to leave unexplored.

Besides the fact that (according to the EDD at least) it apparently originated in and around the Lake District region of northern England, no one is entirely sure where the word gongoozler comes from. And the fact that it’s remarkably unlike just about every other word you can think of probably doesn’t help matters.

Most attempts to explain the word’s origin suggest that it began life among nineteenth century “bargees”—i.e. people who live or travel on canal boats—and originally referred to all those who sit idly on the riverbanks and towpaths of England and watch life go by on the canal.

In that sense, the word was popularized in the mid 1900s by the author LTC Rolt—who mentioned riverside gongoozlers in his hugely popular memoir Narrow Boat in 1944—and was first attested in a 1904 guide to the Canals and Navigable Rivers of England.

But was the word in use more generally before being picked up by bargees around the turn of the century? Or did the bargees coin the word themselves to refer to riverside spectators? Alas, it’s all but impossible to say.

As for its etymology, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that gongoozler might have an pair of etymological cousins in gawn, a Lincolnshire dialect word meaning “to stare vacantly”, and goozen, meaning “to stare aimlessly”.

But even then, the EDD’s claim that it originates in the Lake District throws a spanner into the etymological works. All in all, gongoozling remains something of a riverside mystery.

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