Gush. An Appreciation.

By Mark Haskell SmithApril 18, 2016

Gush. An Appreciation.

I LIKE TO EAT with my fingers. Sloppy foods like tacos and falafel, foods that spurt sauce onto your face when you bite into them, and babaganouj and hummus, foods that you dip bread into. And if I’m not eating with my hands I dig curries, pasta, heaping bowls of ramen. I’m into the succulence, the splatter. Eating a taco on the street or folding a piece of pizza and shoving it in my mouth provides a tactile sensation that goes beyond the flavors in the food. It’s sensual, it’s messy, and it shows on my shirts. But I’m not a slob, I’m a sensualist, an enthusiast. That’s why I was surprised when colleague of mine told me about something one of her students had written. The student had used “hot throbbing gush” in a sentence and my colleague took exception to the word “gush.” I said, “Gush is an excellent word.” Gush is what salsa does when you bite into a taco, gush is beer coming out of a tap. My colleague did not agree.

I’m a fan of gush. For one, it deserves some props for hanging around so long. It’s an old word, circa 1400 and, according to Walter Skeat’s Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, it comes from the Old Norse gusa “to gush, spurt.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “to issue copiously or violently” or “to make an effusive display of affection or enthusiasm.” These are, to my mind, excellent qualities in a word. But somewhat ominously, the dictionary notes that gush is in the “Bottom 40% of words” while, for example, awesome and radical are in the “Top 10% of words.” Since when are dictionaries ranking words? Has reality television contaminated everything?

Other words in the Bottom 40%: moist, an excellent word, IMHO, because something that is moist is on the verge of transformation, a revolutionary word, the physical manifestation of anticipation; clammy, a word that brings a strange mix of sense memories, the nervous interview mixed with the stench of a funky low tide; dank makes it up to the bottom 50% despite being a highly desirable descriptor in the craft beer and cannabis industries. There are some fantastic words exiled to the Merriam-Webster basement — spurt, yeasty, creamy, saucy.

These are sexy words. Adjectives and verbs that describe bodily fluids and functions, but are also used to describe food and pleasure. These are words for hedonists. For enthusiasts. They are nothing to be afraid of, nothing that belongs in the bottom 30% of words. To have an aversion to these kinds of words is to fall into the Puritanical trap. We’re supposed to feel guilty when we feel pleasure. To experience moist or gush, is to indulge yourself, and that is something that our Puritan forefathers discouraged because it can lead us to sin. I’m arguing that we need to break from that stuffy mentality. Let us embrace sensuality: to gush, to splatter, to be enthused.

If one of my students had written the phrase hot throbbing gush, I would only correct their choice by suggesting they use the more concise splooge.


Mark Haskell Smith is an LA-based author, whose latest novel is Naked at Lunch.

LARB Contributor

Mark Haskell Smith is the author of Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup, BakedRaw: A Love Story, Blown, and other books. His latest is Rude Talk in Athens: Ancient Rivals, the Birth of Comedy, and a Writer’s Journey through Greece (Unnamed, 2021). He is an associate professor in the MFA program for Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California Riverside, Palm Desert Graduate Center.


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