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.
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.