January 31, 2017

Words of the Month - Of Doodads and Thingamajigs

A - whatchicalt, B - widget, C - dingus, D - jiggembob, 
E - doohickey, F - thingamerry, G - flumadiddles
        What do you call the object that you don’t know what to call?  There’s always been a need for such a word, the word that can refer to any specific thing, but never means anything in particular; the word that fills in when you don’t have the right word.  Interestingly, English doesn’t have a “real” word to fill this need.  All the words we use are slang, considered silly and informal, and subject to the abrupt changes and shifting fashions of slang usage.  You’d think it would be reasonable to have a proper word in good standing to indicate a forgotten or unknown word, but for whatever reason, we don’t seem to have one.  Instead we have…

whatchamacallit - Phrases along these lines are among our earliest recorded filler words, including what-calle-ye-hym from the late 15th century, and whatdicall’um and whatchicalt from the 16th century.  Our current variant dates to 1928.

jiggembob - The first half of the 17th century seems to have preferred coinages with -bob, including giggombob and kickumbob.

thingy - The arrival of thingum in the 1670s ushered in the 18th century’s favorite way to indicate ignorance, with such gems as thingamabob (1751), thingumtitoy, thingamerry, thingummytite, thingumadad, and thingummy (1796).  Some of these sound quite ridiculous to my ears, but several are still going strong.  One I’m most likely to use is the late arrival thingamajig (1824).

dingus - This American option (1876) apparently comes from Dutch.  This sent me to the on-line translation sites to find out what words other languages use.  Dutch did indeed translate “whatchamacallit” as dinges, French offered Quoi de neuf, and Hungarian gave me izé, but the vast majority of languages from German to Hindi to Russian to Vietnamese came back with “whatchmacallit.”  Of course, this is just as likely to be because of gaps in the on-line dictionaries as actual lexical gaps in the languages, but it does make me curious whether whatchamacallit is one of English’s greatest contributions to the vocabulary of the worlds’ peoples!

doohickey - The early years of the twentieth century seem to have favored doo- variants such as doodad (1905), doohickey (1914), and doodah (1928).  My thesaurus also lists doofunny, doojigger, and doowhacky (without dates).
        While these doodads were prevalent in the USA, British English went for ooj- words, including oojah (1917) and oojamaflop (WWII).  I encountered “oojah” in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Gaudy Night from 1935.

whoosiwhat - Here’s one I can’t find any references to, despite the fact that I’ve certainly both heard and used it.  Part of the problem may be the spelling.  Not being proper words, these terms tend not to have single set spellings.  I’ve also heard the variant whoosiwhatsis, as well as both whoosies and whatsits
        My thesaurus also lists flumadiddle, which I can’t recall having heard and can’t find a date for, but was presumably in use at some point.

gadget - It’s worth noting the subset of words that specifically refer to mechanical objects or parts of machinery for which no technical name comes to mind.  Gadget (1850-86) is from sailors’ slang and gizmo (1942) is from USA navy and marine slang.  Widget (c 1920) seems to be from the civilian world.

what’s-his-name - There are also words that specifically refer to a person whose name we don’t know or can’t recall.  These stretch from what’s-his-name (1690s) to what’s-his-face (1967).

A variety of whoosies and whatsits.
        In Ireland in the 1990s I knew a girl of maybe 5 or 6 years old who referred to anyone whose name she didn’t know as simply thing.  And that, of course, is the simplest word solution of all.  “Hey, thing, can you please hand me the thing from the thing?  No, the other thing; the one beside the little thing with the thing!”  Hmmm… maybe there’s a reason we have different words for different objects.

[Picture: Wood block print (p 189) from De Re Metallica by Georgius Agricola, 1556 (Image from Project Gutenberg);
On Skills of Blacksmiths, wood block print from Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus by Olaus Magnus, 1555 (Image from avrosys.nu).]

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