This is just a word, but what a word: “A gongoozler is a person who enjoys watching activity on the canals of the United Kingdom.” The etymology section says:

“Gongoozler” may have been canal workers’ slang for an observer standing apparently idle on the towpath. Though it was used derisively in the past, today the term is regularly used, perhaps with a little irony, by gongoozlers to describe themselves and their hobby.

The word may have arisen from words in Lincolnshire dialect: gawn and gooze, both meaning to stare or gape. It might be presumed that such an expression would date from the nineteenth century, when canals were at their peak, but the word is only recorded from the end of that century or the early twentieth. It was given wider use by the late L. T. C. Rolt, who used it in his book about canal life, Narrow Boat, in 1944. A gawn is also a small ship of lading, such as a working-narrowboat.

The term “gongoozler” may also be used in any circumstance in which people are spectating without contributing to either the content or interest of an event.

The OED has it (entry from 1993); their first cite:

1904 H. R. de Salis Bradshaw’s Canals & Navigable Rivers Eng. & Wales 473 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.



  1. The EDD doesn’t have the compound. It has gawn and goozle, both Lincolnshire and other NE, not Lake District.

    It also has goostrumnoodle (Cor.) ‘A stupid person, fool’.

  2. I think I am sort of one. I was giddy when I saw a narrowship at this town near Cambridge last year for the first time in person.

    The locals recognised it.

  3. @V I think you’ll find d that was a ‘narrowboat’. Ships are indeed little seen in Cambridge. Powered craft are allowed in ‘The Backs’ by special arrangement.

    Here’s a gongoozler to explain all about it.

  4. It was at Bishop’s Stortford.

  5. The spirit, if not the exact thing:

    “I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”
    — Jerome K. Jerome

  6. My English teacher in High School gave me Three Men in a Boat, and implied I should read it.

  7. Brett: related to the thread you linked to, there is the related “кибик” in Bulgarian, plural “кибици”. It basically means peanut gallery. One of more popular bars in my hometown is called “The Kibik”.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Kiebitz “annoying onlooker, especially in chess” and Kiebitz “(Northern) lapwing” have merged in German. The latter is said to imitate the bird’s cry, the former’s origin is lost in a diversity of Rotwelsch forms that have also spawned Viennese /kɪvɐrɐ/ and /kɪvɐˈrant/, both “policeman”.

    …so I wonder if кибик is actually backformed.

  9. I took that for granted.

  10. Apart of bamboozle (bamfoozle, bum-foozle) EDD has ramfoozle and tantoozle.

  11. and ramfeezle

  12. When I was in high school, if someone complained about too much “kibitzing” around our chess games, I would sometimes claim that the term was an antisemitic slur. I don’t think anybody ever believed me though.

  13. I was in my high school’s chess club and once disrupted a game when we were playing against another school because I saw the guy from the other school cheating. This was the longest game, all our others’ games were finished at that point.

    That being said, I don’t associate кибик specifically with chess; just a general concept of “onlooker”. The bar I mentioned has pool and darts, and it’s equally acossiated with backgammon. Or football.

  14. @V: In English, it’s very much a chess term. It can be applied to other games, but it is unlikely to be familiar to players who do not also play chess. Moreover, it never just means “onlooker.” Kibitzing means providing advice or commentary about an ongoing game to the player participants.

  15. “Kibitz” in English — at least in American English — is widely used in the world of bridge. However, it is strictly confined to the sense of ‘onlooker.’ One kibitzes a bridge game only with the permission of the players, and must say not a word during bidding and play. It may be possible to ask a question during a pause, but again only with prior permission.

  16. Gongoozler sounds remarkably Googological — probably something like Ackermann-function-of-gongoozle and moreover probably followed, several orders of magnitude later, by some sort of a limit-of-reasonably-extending-the-construction number called gongoozlest.

    Ki(e)bitz/s is of course much too kiki to possibly be the name of a Googolism.

  17. David L: Chess, unlike bridge, is a game of perfect information. Kibitzing bystanders cannot possibly know any more than the players about the state of play. This alleviates at least one problem with kibitzing in chess; input from a kibitzer can never be based on information that a player does not have legitimate* access to. Of course, many chess players do not like active kibitzing even in completely casual games, but it is not universally reviled, the way it apparently is in bridge, where a bystander might have seen multiple sides’ cards.

    * However, ideas about what information can be legitimately kept secret in competitive bridge are, in my opinion, quite frankly sometimes bizarre. What sense does it make to be required to tell your opponents in advance what strategy you plan to use when bidding?

  18. where a bystander might have seen multiple sides’ cards
    In the German card game of Skat, the custom is that the Kiebitz is allowed to see only one player’s cards. The role frequently appears in situations when 4 or 5 people are playing, as the game requires three players – so in that case, people take turns playing and the ones sitting out kiebitzen if they feel like it.

  19. @Brett: The rules about information in bridge are complicated and indeed sometimes strange. But the principle that players should know their opponents’ bidding system is straightforward — you need to be able to make sensible bids against whatever the opponents are bidding. If both sides had secret bidding systems, it would be impossible to have rational auctions, because neither side would have any idea what was going on.

    The point about kibitzers keeping mum is to avoid giving out what is called ‘unauthorized information.’ If a player made a bid and the kibitzer asked why, it would imply that other bids could have been made, which would convey information about the hand to the bidder’s partner. Same thing with asking why a particular card was played.

  20. @David L: I understand the purported reasoning for revealing bidding systems. I just think it’s a lousy rule. The rules of a game are arbitrary, so ultimately, it’s a matter of taste—whatever kind of experience the bridge community wants the game to be. I just think it’s very poor esthetic choice for the kind of game I would want to play. Since bridge is a game of imperfect information, I see know reason why players should be forced to reveal their strategies! (Should a cyclist in a road race have to reveal that they are planning to make a break from the peloton at mile 35 if the race is running particularly fast, but not until mile 38 if it’s taking a slightly slower pace?) It’s not as if bridge becomes unplayable if you don’t know an opposing teams system. It just creates a different challenge; if an opponent bids 1 ♥, that provides you with information—that they are hardly likely to be void in hearts, for example—even if it provides less information that it does to their partner, with whom they have prearranged signals.

  21. But the game would become unplayable! Modern systems includes all kinds of artificial bids that have no connection to their natural meaning. I sometimes play that an opening bid of 2 diamonds specifies a certain combination of hearts and spades, and says nothing at all about diamonds. If the opponents don’t know that and assume I have diamonds, all kinds of trouble would ensue. It would make the bidding a matter of chance rather than understanding.

    This is a controversial area, to be sure. There is constant discussion and argument about what sort of bids are allowable. Some players have argued for an ‘anything goes’ style, but the consensus is that it would make it impossible to arrive at rational contracts. It would become a game of pure guessing instead.

    But that’s probably as much as LH readers want to know about bridge.

  22. it is unlikely to be familiar to players who do not also play chess

    no. even extended to the broader category of high-class amusements that have been mentioned so far, just plain nope.

    i’d hazard a guess that english “kibitz” is in active use in relation to every activity that it’s possible to observe without being a participant (whether competitive or not), as long it involves or has at some point involved a minyan of yiddish or yinglish speakers* who’ve decided to introduce it. i’ve certainly heard it used for practically every such thing i’ve ever been in the room for more than once or twice.

    * or new yorkers, who are usually the transmission belt from yiddish and yinglish to other u.s. englishes.

  23. @rozele: I have used kibitz and gotten blank looks of incomprehension numerous times. So while I’m sure that it’s not just players of chess, bridge, et al. who use it, there are plenty of people (at least in the South and West) who play other games but don’t know the word.

    Incidentally, in Yiddish, kibitzer can have either first or second syllable stress. I’m note sure I’ve ever heard second-syllable (i. e. final) stress on just kibitz though.

  24. rozelle: That’s basically what it means in Bulgarian; да кибичим — let’s go people watching, or even just hang out at a public space doing nothing much.

    Brett: second syllable stress in Bulgarian in all forms.

  25. First syllable stress in German in all forms.

  26. there are plenty of people (at least in the South and West) who play other games but don’t know the word.

    Sure. As rozele implies, knowing it is a function of exposure to Yiddish or Yinglish speakers, so it is part of the basic vocabulary of New Yorkers (of whom I still consider myself one). I wouldn’t expect the good citizens of El Paso, say, to be familiar with it.

  27. J.W. Brewer says

    Bridge/schmidge: Bring back whist, I say! (Actually, some variant of whist reportedly remains extant in American black culture, just as somewhat-socially isolated dialects like AAVE can retain lexemes that have become archaic/obsolete in the prestige/standard dialect of the relevant language.)

  28. Stu Clayton says

    I wouldn’t expect the good citizens of El Paso, say, to be familiar with it.

    Here’s “kibitzer” in a 1942 article in the El Paso Times, sort of. Anyhoo I learned the word growing up there, probably at local chess clubs.

  29. Heh. I knew even as I posted my comment that it was going to turn out to be a bad example, but I figured I’d learn something… and I have!

  30. i’ll have to ask a michigander friend who comes from a line of shop-floor euchre players (fast play to fit games into smoke breaks) whether her family’s circles use “kibitz” (they’re lithuanian, though, which means they could’ve picked it up on either side of the atlantic).

  31. rozele: would a back-seat driver ever be called a kibitzer? To me it’s odder than kibitzing a card-player, a cook, or a plumber.

    I had the same surprised reaction when hearing a U.S black man (who would now be in his 70s) talking about playing Whist. I’d previously heard about the game in the context of Phileas Fogg, playing it in the company of other wealthy Englishmen at the Reform.

  32. A middle-aged African American who I know because he’s a bridge player started out as a child playing bid whist, in Philly if remember correctly.

    My family played something called solo whist, which Wikipedia tells me is not really a form of whist after all. But it involves bidding and trick-taking.

  33. @Y: not often, in that phrasing, but someone adding unwelcome commentary to a conversation between driver and navigator could certainly be told “stop kibitzing!”, at least in my family. to my ear, for an activity to be kibitzable, it has to involve more than one person*, and their interaction has to have some level of implicit separation from what’s going on around them. kibitzing is something to complain about because it breaches that separation – the kibitzer is seen as inserting themself into a moment of relation that they weren’t invited into.

    * or be socially equivalent by fully occupying the attention and activity of one person – that plumber, or someone working a crossword puzzle, playing a video game, or writing up a grocery list. in my head, driving alone doesn’t qualify, at least with drivers capable of carrying on a conversation while at the wheel.

  34. rozelle: various participles derived from the verb “to kibik” can be used in that situation in Bulgarian. Some soothing, some chastising.

  35. @J.W. Brewer: My feelings about the necessity of having “rational” contracts in bridge is undoubtedly influenced by my experience with other trick-taking games. Hanging around with serious players of hearts, spades, and euchre,* I appreciated that it was possible to have an awful lot of strategy even with very little starting knowledge of what the other players might be holding.

    * Nobody I knew every played whist—which, for those unaware, is the most basic of the this particular class of trick-taking card games, out of which all the others I mentioned (plus contract bridge and a number of others), were probably developed—except occasionally as a novelty.

  36. Nobody I knew every played whist

    I’m not following how you could play those other games without having played Whist to quite a high level, to understand trick-taking, trumping, etc.

    ‘Whist drives’ were a staple of my grandparents’ generation, usually as a mid-week afternoon/evening social occasion at the church hall/Women’s’ Institute. Bridge was seen as too high-brow.

  37. @AntC: I learned to play hearts and spades before I learned whist, because that’s what people were playing. I only learned whist (along with a few of my friends) because we were curious about what the more basic game was like. Bridge is the most complicated widely-played game in the family, and I’m sure there are lots of bridge players who don’t know whist.

  38. I’m sure there are lots of bridge players who don’t know whist.

    Indeed. My parents and their friends played bridge, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t know whist. (Me, I only got as far as hearts, at which I was very good.)

  39. I’m sure there are lots of bridge players who don’t know whist

    That’s true, but I imagine any decent bridge player would find whist fairly straightforward. Many aspects of card play in bridge — signaling, squeezes, endplays, various coups with exotic names — were first developed by whist players in the 19th century (or perhaps earlier, I don’t know when serious whist began).

    I may have mentioned before that would-be whist players who didn’t know the ins and outs of card play were mocked as stumblebums bumfuzzlers bumblepuppies.

  40. January First-of-May says

    I’m not following how you could play those other games without having played Whist to quite a high level, to understand trick-taking, trumping, etc.

    On my own end, I’m familiar with trick-taking from preferans, which is apparently a distant relative of whist but not directly descended from it; AFAIK the weird/complicated bits of whist/bridge mostly stem from the part where it’s apparently played by teams of two.

  41. who didn’t know the ins and outs of card play were mocked …

    I had played (compulsory) Whist with the family when my father’s (harridan) mother visited for Sunday lunch, so I was reasonably competent.

    One day at school the lunchtime Bridge-sharps were short a player, so I volunteered, making it abundantly clear I’d never played before. There wasn’t so much as a skerrick of explanation of the bidding. For example, no mention that you’re not bidding the number of tricks you’ll win, but the number above six.

    The explanations could not have been more obtuse; the mocking could not have been more merciless.

    So I concluded Bridge players are all arrogant pricks. I haven’t played since. (I have met in later life people who play Bridge. Some of them seem quite pleasant — except when conversation turns to the game, whereupon they retreat into the same omertà.)

    I guess I might try again later in life, when I’m too crocked to walk up mountains.

  42. So I concluded Bridge players are all arrogant pricks

    Not all of us. But some. Bridge clubs had a reputation for being extremely hostile to newcomers, to the point that the American Contract Bridge League put rules of behavior in place to reduce the nastiness. It’s better than it used to be, or so am I told. I only started playing seriously about 15 years ago.

  43. J.W. Brewer says

    In the small-city region where I grew up, the local specimen of the traditional WASPy private social club was (and still is) named “The University and Whist Club,” which both in my youth (when I was in college in the ’80’s, the local alumni would have the current undergraduates from the area to lunch there over Christmas break) and now I thought/think a rather lovely name because of the gosh-darn archaism of it. Its website advises me, however, that the name only dates back to the ’50’s, when two previously separate entities (one “University” and the other “Whist”) merged due to a challenging environment for that sort of club. The “Whist” predecessor dated back to 1891 (before the vulgar novelty of “bridge” had been innovated), and its original rules allegedly forbade all three of drinking, gambling, and females on the premises.

    EDITED TO ADD: I’m pretty sure (without bothering to check …) that Jules Verne had Phileas Fogg playing whist at his posh London gentlemen’s club? Whether I first encountered a mention of the game as a boy there versus in my parents’ paperback copy of According to Hoyle I can’t be sure of in terms of timeline.

  44. It was. I brought up Phileas Fogg above.

    In my mind the Reform Club was mixed up with the Diogenes Club, co-founded and frequented by Mycroft Holmes. The whist was mixed up in my mind with some other game and another club for taciturn Englishmen, said game being favored because it required little speaking. I don’t remember what work that was in, or by what author.

  45. I’m familiar with trick-taking from preferans
    A game quite similar to Skat, maybe a bit simpler; I have played both games and taught Skat to players of preferans, who were able to pick it up quickly because many tactics and strategies carry over well from one game to the other.

  46. Whist drives remain common in rural Ireland, often as a local fundraiser. I don’t know whether that means solo whist or simple whist. I’ve never played either. I took up bridge recently by taking a course of lessons in a local bridge club given by a certified bridge teacher. Few of any of the class had played whist.

  47. John Cowan says

    I have played Tarot-whist on a fairly elementary level using fortune-telling Tarot cards. The Major Arcana are, of course, trumps.

    My English teacher in High School gave me Three Men in a Boat, and implied I should read it.

    Surely if anyone gives you a book they are implying you should read it. Nowadays people don’t give me books without asking me if I have read them, because far too often I have.

    Whist drives remain common in rural Ireland

    To this Yank, a whist drive would be an event at which whists are sold, possibly to benefit a charity.

  48. Stu Clayton says

    In contrast, charity drives are not events at which charities are sold. The results of such drives are not for the benefit of the charities, but for that of the recipients of charity.

    Similarly, a whist drive is for the benefit of whist players – to organize whist playing events and promote the game. The players do not buy and sell whist, but play it.

    “Drive” in these locutions seems to mean “campaign to promote”. See temperance drive et al.

  49. Stu Clayton says

    Sales drive. Drive for spelling reform. Sex drive.

  50. Mulholland Drive.

  51. Stu Clayton says

    # The film boosted [Naomi] Watts’ Hollywood profile considerably #

  52. John Cowan: The implication was that I was way beyond high school English: I was too bored in regular English classes, so I might as well do something productive in her classes. She just picked that particular book because she liked it. She wanted me to stop disrupting her classes with correct answers, and was trying to find something that wold catch my attention to read so as to not disrupt her lessons.

    Context: Bulgarian high school at the turn of the millennium.

    TMI: My literaturature teacher did the same with Arthur Clarke

  53. We actually studied syntactic trees (high school) and phonetics in sixth grade. It’s weird to to me that most people don’t. I got taught Bulgarian and English and some French IPA at 9 years old. I know that not normal, but still.

    (40-ish, Bulgarian)

  54. > Similarly, a whist drive is for the benefit of whist players

    At the end of their traffic report, the local public radio announcer informs us, “Support for traffic has been provided by…,” leaving listeners to wonder at the the of malevolent foundation or private donor that would give for such purposes. Still, it doesn’t touch the evil of various “Runs for Lung Cancer” and the like.

  55. David Marjanović says

    We actually studied syntactic trees (high school) and phonetics in sixth grade.

    Oh wow.

  56. Why I was in seventh grade, our English class started the second semester with a unit that covered the formal syntactic structure of sentences—understanding attachment diagrammatically, although not as rigorously as with true syntactic trees. One of the teachers* stated, at the end of the unit, we ought to be able to map out the syntactic structure of any sentence. I (being I) immediately pointed out a bunch of grammatical constructions that we had not covered: compound sentences, direct quotes, purely intonational questions, etc.—and even interjections (although I admitted that last one might be unfair). Moreover, the whole thing was quite unpopular with the students, and most of the English teachers (consequently or not) did not cover the topic at all.

    * For what seemed to me at the time to be ill-considered reasons, that particular class was approximately double the normal size, but with two teachers, Mrs. Turner and Mrs. Hill. Unfortunately, for Mrs. Hill, the previous summer this film had been a big hit.

  57. We actually studied syntactic trees (high school) …

    I echo David M’s ‘wow’. Diagramming sentences seemed to be a thing in U.S. schools back in the day. When did that die out?

    In British [‘Grammar’] school, I got no formal instruction in grammar until I studied Latin. The Latin master complained at length he had to teach English grammar before he could teach Latin. It was of course a very Latin-dominated form of grammar: ‘Passive voice’ and all.

  58. My experience was the same as AntC’s, except that I don’t recall my Latin teacher complaining; he was aware that none of us knew anything about grammar except that we could distinguish between nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs with some accuracy. Conjunctions and prepositions and other arcana were a different matter.

    This was in the first year of grammar school, so 5th grade, I think, in US terminology. I dropped Latin after a year and switched to German instead, so that I got to apply my rudimentary knowledge of Latin grammar to a different language, for better or worse.

    I’d never heard of diagramming sentences until I came to the US, and even now I don’t understand it.

  59. i got a dash of diagramming sentences in the late 1980s, but it was very much on its way out (at least in places with any interest in contemporary pedagogy). it was not, as i recall, much use for anything – very much in the “latin is the one true grammar so let’s pretend english uses it” tradition that is mostly intended to make kids internalize the most useless kinds of prescriptive-grammar peevery.

  60. I did sentence diagramming in what must have been the early-to-mid-nineties in Catholic (my mom taught there, but I wasn’t) school in Vermont. It didn’t come up again afterwards. Same school dutifully taught me cursive in the late 80s, in which I was obliged to write all my homework until I moved on to high school.

  61. David Marjanović says

    Oh, we did learn some syntax in elementary school: subjects and objects and “predicates” (verbs, that is!) and attributes. But, given all the reshuffling German word order permits, I never heard of any kind of diagramming sentences till I read Americans recounting their experiences.

    What shocked me was the concept of learning phonetics in school.

  62. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    My Danish teacher in 8th and 9th grade was a fan of Diderichsen’s analysis of Danish sentences into a fixed sequence of fields, so I got pretty good at that.

  63. What we did in 1990 was a version of diagramming. But, as I said, the other English teachers at Judson Middle School didn’t teach it.

  64. First and second grade was almost half practicing cursive Cyrrilic handwriting, the other half arithmetic. 1990.

    And being involuntarily conscripted in the Communist youth corps, but that barely registered.

  65. i changed schools in 5th grade (mid-80s), so had the lovely experience of learning two different required cursive scripts in elementary school (the second a “simplified”/”modernized” progressive-pedagogy version that must’ve been a significant advance in learnability over proper copperplate, fifty or so years earlier; the first more conventional and ornamented).

  66. The evening news announcement that we should no longer address our teachers as “comrade” — I’ll never forget the link on my parents’ faces.


  67. Relieved / baffled / stunned?

    link >> look

    *другарю / другарко

    Most teachers were female

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