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Agog

Q From Gordon Keen: I am all agog to discover the derivation of agog.

A Neatly put ...

It comes, like much of our language, from French. Middle French had gogue, entertainment, fun or amusement. From this developed en gogues, in good humour. English took it in and gave it a home, but changed the first element to on and then to a-, at the same time shortening the unpronounced ending.

It’s still widely to be found, though its usage has dropped off in the last half century. Standard dictionaries say it has the sense that you’re using — eager or curious to hear or see something. The compound all agog (“I was all agog to discover who the new Dr Who would be”) has an air of bouncy immature anticipation that makes it difficult to use in serious contexts.

Looking around, I discovered that agog is having serious identity issues. Typical of recent usage was a headline in the Irish Times in 2011, “Americans left agog at confused cruelty of Irish abortion law”. To me, agog can’t mean “astonished”, but its entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, revised in 2012, says it now can. There’s also the alliterative compound agog and aghast, or aghast and agog, which seems destined to become a set phrase:

The discovery that Frankie Dettori had failed a drugs test, at Longchamp in September, left his peers agog and aghast.

The Independent, 15 Nov 2012.

This feels quite wrong — agog for me lacks the implications of shock and horror that accompany aghast. Might its users have been confusing it with goggle? Another compound form, less common, is agape and agog, which communicates a sense of utter gobsmacked astonishment.

Incidentally, a related Middle French form was à gogo, uninhibitedly or joyfully, probably formed from gogue by reduplication. This is still in the French language and appeared in Paris in 1952 in the name of the nightclub and pioneering discotheque called the Whisky à Gogo (that is, Whisky Galore, presumably from the film of the book by Compton Mackenzie). The format became fashionable and it and the name were brought into English, leading to the modified version a-go-go appearing all over the place during the 1960s as a fashionable creation meaning fashionable. This presumably influenced go-go, a native English reduplication of go that appeared about the same time, especially in the erotic dancers called go-go girls, as well as the triply emphatic go-go-go for continual movement, hustle and bustle.

Page created 17 Aug. 2013

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Last modified: 17 August 2013.