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Pronounced /ɡɒnˈguːzlə/Help with pronunciation

This is one of the odder words in the English lexicon and not only because of its strange appearance and its meaning of an idle spectator.

It suddenly started to become popular in Britain from about 1970 onwards, but with very little previous recorded history attached to it. It is closely linked with canal life, and even now it seems to be a word especially favoured by those who like to mess about on narrow waterways. It is said to have been a bit of canal workers’ slang, originally for a person who stood on the towpath idly watching activity.

You might expect that it would date from the heyday of the canals in the early part of the nineteenth century, but it’s only recorded from the end of that century or the early twentieth.

GONGOOZLER, An idle and inquisitive person who stands staring for prolonged periods at anything out of the common.

Bradshaw’s Canals and Navigable Rivers of England and Wales, by Henry Rodolph De Salis, 1904.

It was given wider public notice by the late L T C Rolt, who used it in his book about canal life, Narrow Boat, in 1944. It is said to derive from a couple of words in Lincolnshire dialect: gawn and gooze, both meaning to stare or gape. However, nobody seems too clear about this and the entry for it in the Supplement to the English Dialect Dictionary in 1905 says it comes from the Lake District.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Nov. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 3 November 2001.