Gom and Gower.

A correspondent writes:

My mother (2nd youngest of nine, b. 1934) and her sisters used an expression that I took for granted, but never heard elsewhere. They’d say “gom and gower”, always in that order, with a hard “g”, rhyming with “mom and power” to refer to overhandling a substance or object the point of ruining. As in “I don’t want it after you’ve been gomming and gowering it” to decline a second helping of food offered after the offerer had carefully picked out the part they want, possibly stirring it. Or “don’t gom and gower it” if something needed to be left alone or only lightly stirred. But it wasn’t used exclusively in the kitchen; other projects were similarly prone to overwork or damage from too much fussing and needed to be left alone. (It may just be that kitchen memories are stronger for younger people.) […] It could be just a family expression, but it seems like more than that.

For any help it gives you, she was born in old Florida, to a family that traced its roots there to an English sailor to Barbados in the early 1500’s, the usual Scot-Irish protestants and Irish Catholics of Georgia and the Carolinas, and one German soldier arriving from Sweden after some war in the mid 1600’s.

I found the question intriguing and thought I’d pass it along to the Varied Reader. “Gom and gower” is a great expression, and I may start using it myself.


  1. FWIW The first British settlers arrived in Barbados on 17th February 1627.

  2. Gaum is in the English Dialect Dictionary as “1. To grasp or clasp; to hold. 2.To pull about with the hands; to handle improperly,” and separately as “To besmear, daub, soil, dirty; to make sticky or greasy, to clog or choke with grease, dirt.” Likewise DARE has goam “To get something sticky or smeared up,” based on the questionnaire item “The children have been eating candy and they’ve got their faces all ________.”

    I haven’t figured out gower.

  3. You must be right about gaum, though — well done!

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Might “gower” be mangled from “glaur”?


  5. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Gaum is in the OED, for that matter.

    gaum, v.1
    To handle, esp. in some improper fashion.

    1893 J. Salisbury Gloss. Words S.E. Worcs. Gaum, to handle articles in a manner calculated to damage or mar their appearance.

    But the only doublet in the quotes is ‘maum and gaum’.

  6. I somehow spelled the DARE entry as “goam” instead of “gaum”.

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    No need to posit glaur with missing “l”:
    GOOR, n., v. Also gur(r), gure, †gour, †gor(e). [ne.Sc. gu:r; I.Sc., Cai. gʌr, gor]

    I. n. Slimy dirt or filth of any kind:

    1. Mucus, waxy matter, esp. rheum gathered in the corners of the eyes (Sc. 1808 Jam., gore; Cai. 1900 E.D.D.; Sh. 1908 Jak. (1928), gor; Ork. 1922 J. Firth Reminisc. 151, gur; Abd.4 1932; Sh., Ork., Cai., Ags. 1954); wax in the ear (Ork. 1929 Marw., gurr). Also in Dev. dial.Sc. 1714 W. Fraser Hist. Carnegies (1867) 284:
    Tho’ your eyes does nott appear red yett, the gore and stifness comes from a watery humour.Sc. 1741 A. Monro Anat. Nerves 48:
    The Gum, or Gore, as we call it, was separated in greater Quantity, . . . and the Eye-ball itself was diminished.Sh. 1949 J. Gray Lowrie 82:
    I wis kinda raamished, an’ wisna gotten da gurr oot o’ me een.

    2. Mud, dirt (Sh. 1866 Edm. Gl., gur; Sh., Mry., Kcd. 1954); muddy, stagnant water, sediment (Bnff., Abd. 1954). Also in Eng. (mainly n.) dial.

  8. My mother said “gommed up,” with a COT vowel. Eastern KY, born 1920.

  9. Trond Engen says

    PlasticPaddy: GOOR, n., v. Also gur(r), gure, †gour, †gor(e). [ne.Sc. gu:r; I.Sc., Cai. gʌr, gor]

    I. n. Slimy dirt or filth of any kind:

    Isn’t this simply Eng. gore?

    The ON cognate gor meant “half-digested food in the intestines (esp. of ruminants)”, and B&L see this as the original sense of the word,

    As for gaum, Wiktionary has the verb

    gum (third-person singular simple present gums, present participle gumming, simple past and past participle gummed)

    1. To chew, especially of a toothless person or animal.

    So gum and gore would seem to mean “chew and digest” (maybe especially in the fashion of a ruminant, since ruminants don’t have upper teeth).

  10. The verb to gum in this sense has the wrong implication. In my experience, it always refers to ineffective chewing, by people who have no teeth.

    To my amazement, this sense is absent from the OED! There’s v.1: ‘To treat with aromatic gums’; ‘To fasten, or fix in position with gum or some sticky substance’; ‘Of a fruit tree: To exude gum as a morbid secretion’; ‘To become clogged or stiffened by some gummy substance, as inspissated oil’ [cribbed from the Century Dictionary]; ‘To interfere with the smooth running of (something); to spoil, wreck. Chiefly with up‘; ‘To cheat, delude, humbug. U.S. slang. (Said to originate from the opossum’s eluding the huntsman in the foliage of a gum tree)’. There’s v. 2: ‘To deepen and enlarge the spaces between the teeth of (a worn saw)’.

    But nothing about chewing with the gums. Nor does the Century Dictionary have it.

    From the usage in the question, I still think it’s gaum, not the distinct gum.

    Add: From what I can tell, gum ‘to chew with the gums’ started getting popular in the U.S. in the early 20th century, as part of the noun-verbing craze; the verb was also used in the sense ‘to chat’, as in the surviving form, to flap one’s gums.

  11. Somehow, presumably due to a childhood mishearing, my father and his brothers came to believe that that verb for “put one’s mouth on toothlessly” was gub, not gum. That was propagated for at least half a century, until my brothers and I came to the conclusion that that sense does not actually exist. (I don’t know what my much younger and seldom seen sister knows.)

    Then again, I am sort of hoping that my kids will grow up not realizing that dwiltz was a word I coined myself. Their mother uses it, more than I do, but she knows the history. I’m not sure whether my sons know though, and to ask would spoil it.

  12. PlasticPaddy says

    There is a verb gor in Irish meaning “to heat or warm” (this would also be a cognate of the ON, closer in meaning to that assigned to the PIE). The thing is that the noun gor in Irish can also mean pus. I do not know if this is a borrowing (with specialisation) or a development along the lines of e.g., heat > infection > pus. So I would still say the idea is “to turn to slime or coat with slime”, but clearly the context is “by handling or putting in the mouth”, as you say.

  13. David Marjanović says

    ruminants don’t have upper teeth

    Upper incisors. They all have a full set of premolars and molars, unsurprisingly.

  14. Trond Engen says

    Of course.

  15. Lars Mathiesen says

    Danish has gøre ~ ‘do’ — I though it might be related through the ‘warm’ sense because I had an old factoid from somewhere that it originally meant ‘to cook’ and was related to grød = ‘porridge’, but that turns out to be quite wrong. There’s a PG *arwaz in there, and it’s cognate with G gerben — an old participle hides in Da sågar and G gar.

    (Never trust something you read in a book when you were a teenager).

  16. Trond Engen says

    Since B&L see “half-digested food” as original, they reject a derivation from IE “warm” on semantic grounds.

    Da. gøre et al < *garwijan-, which makes it i doublet of garve “tan (of leather)” &l; LG garwen. This is traditionally taken as a causative to an adjective *garwa- “prepared (of food as well as people)”. The further derivation from PIE **gʷʰer- is impossible for phonological reasons. B&L prefer to see *garwijan- as a prefigated *ga-arwijan-, with the causative derived from the adjective *arwa- with similar meanings (“quick, ready, propared”), and the adjective forms united in *garwa- as secondary and deverbal.

    I want to press the “gore” word in here as well, but B&L will not, prefering **ǵʰer-H- and a comparison with Lat haru-. Perhaps the semantic overlap is just semantic contamination in the extended senses.

  17. Trond Engen says

    &l; for <
    **gʷʰer- for *gʷʰer-
    No closing of the cursive after haru-

  18. Trond Engen says

    Oh, back to gom. If gum v. is 20th century, I agree that it’s not likely to be the origin of the expression.

  19. I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s Y’s gaum “To grasp or clasp; to hold; To pull about with the hands; to handle improperly; To besmear, daub, soil, dirty; to make sticky or greasy, to clog or choke with grease, dirt.”

  20. Trond Engen says

    The only problem I see is rhyming it with mum when the written form represents a long vowel. But the vowel quality is a problem also for rhyming gower with power, which suggests < *guːr. Is there a dialect where both vowels are regular outcomes?

  21. Patricia McDonald says

    My grandmother used the phrase “mess and gom” to mean the same as your gom and gower. She lived her whole llfe in southern Mississippi, english background.

  22. David Marjanović says

    Since B&L see “half-digested food” as original, they reject a derivation from IE “warm” on semantic grounds.

    Why? I’m sure a ruminant’s stomachs stay warm for a long time after death. The fermentation just goes on.

  23. Trond Engen says

    Rejection is too strong, but they weigh against it. No clear reason is given:

    Formalt sett kan grunnformen germ. *gura- ovenfor reflektere en eldre germansk form *gʷura- (med **gʷ > **g foran *u, som kan høre til roten ieur. **gʷer- “være varm” […]. Men semantisk sett er det for de germanske formene, der betydningen “tarminnhold” tydelig er gammel, mindre godt å gå ut fra en grunnbetydning “varm”.

    Formally the basal form Gmc. *gura- above can reflect an older Gmc. form *gʷura- (with *gʷ > *g before *u), which can belong to the root IE *gʷer- “be warm” […]. But semantically it is, for the Germanic forms, where the meaning “gut content” clearly is old, less satisfying to start from a basic meaning “warm”,

    SInce this is the last paragrah of the entry, the competing analysis unstated. Imagine “than from “gut content” reconstructed with comparison to Lat. haru-.”

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