Monday, June 26, 2017

All-purpose words

He laid the spent pistol carefully on the whatnot beside Anna's bed.
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries

Among the handiest words in the English language are those that can mean almost anything. And we have a lot of them, words like whatchamacallit and thingamajig that we use when we don't know or can't remember the proper word for something. If it's a name we're trying to come up with, we say whatsisname or whatshername. Used often enough, such words can turn any conversation into a guessing game, but at least they avoid awkward pauses while we stammer trying to think of the proper word or name.

Whatnot shelves
Another such word is whatnot, which we often employ in the sense of etcetera or miscellaneous. As the above line from Eleanor Catton's novel The Luminaries illustrates, the word has also been used for a piece of furniture, in this case what we might call a bedside table, one which might hold just about anything, especially when we empty our pockets at the end of the day. I can recall my mother referring to what she called whatnot shelves. They held knickknacks, trinketsdoodads, gewgaws and whatnot, usually pretty little things that didn't belong anywhere else.

These words often have a variety of different spellings. What Americans call whatchamacallits, the British call what-you-may-call'em or, at one time, what-d'ye-call'em.  Thingamajigs can also be called thingumbobs or thingums or thingummies or any other variation.

In Listening to America, Stuart Berg Flexner tells us that the word gadget started as naval slang to refer to "any small mechanical contrivance." The word soon spread to the general population. Flexner mentions other such words, including gilguy, dingbat (before it came to be used to refer to dimwitted people), doohickey and gizmo.

Jeffrey Kacirk includes several such all-purpose words in Informal English, a dictionary of odd words and phrases used, or once used, in various regions of the United States. The Kansas word is doflickety. In Nebraska, he says, they preferred optriculum., while in Maine the favored word was dingclinker.

In Alabama, he writes, when they didn't know the specific name of an ailment they would call it hicapooka or hicapookum.

Kacirk says Union soldiers during the Civil War invented the word skyugle, which could be used as either a noun or a verb to mean just about anything, as in "He had skyugled along the front when rebels skyugled a bullet through his clothes."

In Maine they liked the word with-its to refer to what most of us in America now call sides, or anything from asparagus to zucchini that is served with the main course at a meal.

Without such all-purpose words, most of us would be at a loss whenever we get forgetful or simply don't know the proper terminology.

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