Frank McNally: The slovenly rise of ‘goblin mode’

The surprising endurance in the 21st century of European folk superstitions

The existence of the term “goblin mode” had somehow escaped me until last month, when it appeared on the Oxford English Dictionary compilers’ shortlist for word of the year. It also seemed to have escaped The Irish Times archive, in which it hereby makes its debut.

But the phrase was already sufficiently popular in certain places that it has since beaten the other word-of-2022 candidates, “metaverse” and the hashtag “IStandWith”, to win a public vote of OED readers.

No doubt it’s a reflection of the disciplined, well-ordered lives we lead here in Tara Street that there has been no need for the expression in these parts until now.

According to the dictionary, goblin mode refers to “a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations”.


Such behaviour became common during the Covid lockdowns, the lifting of which brought an upsurge in the term’s usage.

People in goblin mode were and remain typically sitting on the sofa, slightly drunk or eating pizza, or both, while wearing pyjamas. They also post pictures and opinions on social media, indifferent to the need to create a good impression.

For the moment at least, this seems to be the spirit of the age. A broadly similar development is the social media app BeReal, which rejects the careful curation of Instagram lifestyles in favour of something more like spontaneity, policed by randomly timed demands to post selfies.

On a separate note, the rise of goblin mode also confirms the surprising endurance in the 21st century of European folk superstitions involving small, malevolent creatures who live in caves or forests.

Early frontrunners were the trolls, traditionally Scandinavian troglodytes with a habit of lurking under bridges. They successfully reinvented themselves for the online age, often lurking under the metaphorical bridges of newspaper comment sections instead.

Now their Gallic cousins are vying for the spotlight. The oldest recorded goblins, at least, were French: haunting the area around Évreux in the 12th century. Which reminds me that the Latin Quarter of nearby Paris has an Ave des Gobelins and a Gobelins school. But those are no relation (I think).

The Parisian Gobelins were a family of tapestry makers who had a factory where the avenue now is. Enlightened as it might be to have an educational facility dedicated to the improvement of malevolent spirits, meanwhile, the institution known as “Gobelins, l’école de l’image” is a school of the visual arts.

Words beginning with “gob” have long been popular on this island too. And although there is no connection that I know of with supernatural French beings, the results do also tend to be insulting.

Cases in point include Myles na gCopaleen’s celebrated description of the below-the-line commenters of his day, the Plain People of Ireland, as an “ignorant, self-opinionated, sod-minded, suet-brained, ham-faced, mealy-mouthed, streptococcus-ridden gang of natural gobdaws”.

Then there is gobdaw’s rude first cousin: “gobshite”. When that made its debut in the New York Times a couple of years ago, as identified by a Twitter account that records such milestones, it was presumed to have been smuggled into the US via Irish literature.

Then somebody noted that the word had first appeared in print in the same New York – where it meant a mouthful of tobacco juice, as spat by sailors – more than a century ago. Only decades later was it recorded in Ireland, and applied to types of people.

On the other hand, Patrick Weston Joyce in English as We Speak it in Ireland (1910) had “Gobshell”, said to be a Limerick term, from the Irish “gob” (meaning mouth) and “seile” (spittle). That sounds very similar to the original New York sense, and unusually polite for Limerick.

Then there is gobán, an old Hiberno-English word that may be dying out. The mythical original of the species was An Gobán Saor, a master stonemason of ancient Ireland, supposed builder of the round towers.

He was also famously wise, so you might think that to be called a gobán in modern times would be a compliment. But Ireland being Ireland, it’s not.

According to Terry Dolan’s Hiberno-English dictionary, a gobán or gubán is “a botch, an unskilled tradesman” or “a captious critic, who professes knowledge he does not often possess”.

If word is not much used today, the concept is as valid as ever. Social media has been a boon to the captious critic variety especially. Some might argue that Twitter is now owned by a gobán. But leaving him aside, I can think of a few tweeters who are permanently in gobán mode.