English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Something shocking

Q: A colleague recently emailed that he was “shocked and saddened” to hear of the death of an 83-year-old. How can one be “shocked” at the death of someone who’s 83?  Saddened, yes. Surprised, maybe. But shocked? I wonder. Ever since Casablanca, the word “shocked” seems to have become diluted.

A: Yes, the adjective “shocked” isn’t as shocking as it used to be, but its dilution began long before Captain Renault said, “I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

When “shocked” showed up in English in the 17th century, it meant “shaken violently,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1642 poem in Remains of the Early Popular Poetry of England (1864-66), edited by William C. Hazlitt:

“The women did stand by and quake, / As did the people, in old Æsops time, / At the shockt mount, whereforth a Mouse did clime.” (The reference is to “The Mountain of Labor,” an Aesop fable in which a mountain violently gives birth to a mouse.)

By the 19th century, the adjective “shocked” had weakened to mean “scandalized, horrified,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the more temperate usage is from a Jan. 21, 1840, letter from Queen Victoria to her Foreign Secretary, Viscount Palmerston:

“The Queen also sends a letter which she found in a box which had been put by, and which she has kept near three years, she is shocked to say.”

The meaning of the adjective has weakened even more in some modern standard dictionaries.

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online, for example, defines it as “feeling very upset or surprised,” and gives this example: “He was shocked to discover that he had no money left in his account.”

However, the online Macmillan Dictionary sounds quite Victorian in its definitions: (1) “very surprised and upset by something bad that happens unexpectedly,” and (2) “very offended or embarrassed by something that you consider immoral.”

The source of the violent beginnings of “shocked” was the verb “shock,” which the OED says meant “to come into violent contact, to collide, clash together; esp. to encounter in the shock of battle” when it first showed up in the 16th century.

In the late 17th century, the verb took on its sense of to offend, scandalize, and horrify. And in the 18th century, it came to mean to give someone an electric shock.

We’ll end with a few electrifying lines from “Anything Goes,” one of our favorite Cole Porter songs:

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, Heaven knows,
Anything goes.

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