meaning and origin of ‘gongoozler’




a person who stares protractedly at anything




This noun originally denoted, in the canal people’s slang, an idler who stares at length at activity on a canal. Although it probably dates back to the 19th century, it is first recorded in Glossary of Canal Terms, in Bradshaw’s Canals and Navigable Rivers of England and Wales (1904), by Henry Rodolph de Salis (1866-1936):

Gongoozler, an idle and inquisitive person who stands staring for prolonged periods at anything out of the common. This word is believed to have its origin in the Lake District of England.

The etymology of the word is unknown. Henry Rodolph de Salis mentioned Cumbria, in north-western England, as its possible place of origin, but it has been speculated that gongoozler is related to two verbs recorded in the dialect of Lincolnshire, on the east coast of England:

to gawn, meaning to yawn, gape and to stare vacantly or curiously,

to gooze, also to goozen, meaning to stare aimlessly, gape.

According to the following, from Life on a London waterway, published in The Hampshire Advertiser of 13th July 1907, gongoozlers were not mere idle spectators:

Nearly all the bridges are lined with curious idlers, known as “gongoozlers,” and the habits of these persons are not nice. They insult the “bargees” or any one on the boat, throwing stones or sticks and acting in other objectionable ways as the boats pass, knowing no revenge can be taken.
We once witnessed a scene that delighted our hearts with its dramatic possibilities. A barge coming slowly through an arch was being carefully watched. Before the skipper at the stern was seen, he quietly dipped his mop into the water and stood ready. As he gradually appeared, the crowd of faces, but a few inches above, took in the position at a glance. The situation was tense with excitement, but not a sound was heard as the barge drifted slowly by. Had a movement been made, the mop would have been whirled upward, drenching the “gongoozlers” above. We felt almost sorry that there was no demand for its use. Some of the boatmen carry stores of smooth round stones, making good use of them should occasion arise. Even a dump of coal has proved very effective for quieting some troublesome urchin.

The Nottingham Evening Post of 9th July 1931 published an article titled “Water gipsies” doomed: Passing of a picturesque people, about the disappearance of both the horse-drawn barges and the “water gipsies, as the canal folk are often called”; the author wrote:

The canal people have had the monopoly of the business for a century, and it is not strange they should have evolved a language of their own. Many words like chalico, jambing pole, gongoozler, josher, and loodel, are unfamiliar to those living ashore.

The word chalico denoted a piping-hot mixture of tar, horse-manure and cow-hair, used for dressing the timbers of barges.

The term jambing pole was thus defined by Henry Rodolph de Salis: “the pole projecting from the bows of all Fen lighters forming a gang except the first and second; the first lighter carrying no pole and the second the steering pole, which is longer than a jambing pole”. (Fen Lighters were lighters (flat-bottomed barges) used to transport goods throughout the Fens, a marshy region in eastern England.)

A josher was a boat belonging to Fellows, Morton, and Clayton Ltd., Canal Carriers; Mr. Fellows’ forename was Joshua.

A loodel was a staff used to form a vertical extension of the tiller of a barge for the purpose of steering the barge when loaded with high loads, such as hay or straw; the loodel was inserted in a mortice in the fore-end of the tiller.

Belinda, a comic-strip published in the Daily Mirror, may have contributed to the popularity of the word gongoozler. In 1943, Belinda’s adventures involved a villain who pretended to be a waterway gongoozler. The following was published on 22nd May:

– Mr Jolly: “Look at that gongoozler, Ma!—Some folks ain’t got nothing better to do than stare at honest men earnin’ their living!”
– Belinda: “
Gongoozler?—Gosh!—What kind of animal’s that?—Oh. I see, a sorta looker-on—Like guys who watch a hole in the road!”

Belinda - 22 May 1943

And this dialogue appeared on 5th June:

– Belinda: “I– I think he only popped in to have a drink with that– that goozlegug, Mr Jolly!”
– Mr Jolly: “Goozlegug?—I s’pose you mean
gongoozler, lass?—’As that nosey-parker followed us all the way ’ere?”

Belinda - 5 June 1943


The earliest transferred use of gongoozler that I have found is from the column Bridge, by the British fiction author and bridge player Seca Jasha Simon (1904-48), in The Observer (London) of 11th November 1945:

I am indebted to Mr. Ivor Brown for teaching me the word “Gongoozler”—one who is so enamoured of life that he cannot stop looking at it. It is a badly needed supplement to the American “Kibitzer,” which sounds rather as though the looker-on were sitting down. A Gongoozler, clearly, never sits: he roams round the card table, peering at all the four hands. May we soon hear an exasperated declarer exclaiming: “Oh, stop gongoozling and kibitz!”

(The word kibitz is Yiddish, from German Kiebitz, interfering onlooker at cards, literally lapwing.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.