Why We’re All Shooketh

The term is online slang of biblical proportions.

The word "shooketh," in red with a yellow background, superimposed on a black-and-white image of Shakespeare's face
Getty; The Atlantic

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Lately modern life has felt all too biblical. Plagues, massive weather events, tribal divisions, demagogic leadership … and people using words like shooketh. The phrase I’m shooketh was first uttered by the comedian Christine Sydelko in a YouTube video uploaded to her account in 2017 (she was expressing her shock at having been recognized by a fan at Boston Market). The adjective shooketh took off as a way to lend biblical proportions to awestruck confusion. But the linguistic journey to its creation spans the evolution of the English language, connecting Early Modern English, turn-of-the-century adventure novels, and Twitter slang.

When we want to transform verbs like shake into adjectives, we typically use something called a participle, either present or past. The present participle of shake is shaking, as in “I’m shaking.” The past participle would be “I’m shaken.” But, for some reason, in the 19th century, the simple past tense, shook, took hold. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 adventure classic Treasure Island, Long John Silver admits, “I’ll not deny neither but what some of my people was shook—maybe all was shook; maybe I was shook myself.” And 14 years later, in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, the form reappears within a now-common collocation with up when Dan Troop exclaims, “Well, you was shook up and silly.”

No one knows for sure why shook slipped in as a possible participial form. It’s the only verb I know that does that. You can’t say “I’m drank” or “She’s so grew up” or “I feel saw.” Although you might gather what they mean, the verbs feel too active to be adjectives. Perhaps it’s something about the action of shaking itself—how the feeling of being shaken to your core puts you in a complicated existential relationship with time. Or maybe the immediacy and punchiness of the sound of the word shook feels more like that feeling of astonishment than shaken, which sounds more like a wobble or a cocktail. Whatever the reason, the form stuck around long enough to be popularized by Elvis Presley in 1957 and then brought pretty close to our current form of the word by James Brown in 1969.

Now to the second half of the combination: the suffix -eth. To make shooketh’s relationship to tense even more … uh … well … tense … -eth was used in Early Modern English (think Shakespeare and the King James Bible) to put verbs in the third-person present tense. Back then, English had different verb endings depending on who was doing the action. “I love,” yes, but “thou lovest” and “he/she/it loveth.” Soon, -eth simplified to just -s, but we still use the form when we need to give our verbs a little extra ancient oomph. It just wouldn’t be as momentous to say “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away!” And it certainly wouldn’t be as cool to say “I’m shooks.”

But our distance from the Elizabethan era allows -eth to reappear with no tense tension. Instead, it simply adds a wry dramatic flourish to the feeling of being shook. If using shook dials the shock of shaken up a notch, adding -eth pushes the intensity to 11, expressing a holy and almost sublime desire in the face of inexplicable events. Shooketh yokes together a punchy modern verbal innovation with a dramatic formal relic of early English to communicate a shaking of biblical proportions. Hence the Thursday-level clue “Gobsmacked, in faux-archaic slang.”