This blog is about those wonderful filler words that we all use to cover up the gaps when our brains check out instead of providing a word.
Interestingly, they vary across the UK, and there may be something age-related going on as well – my mother-in-law introduced me to doohickey, and I’m not sure if that’s a generational thing, or a Manchester thing.
Words such as gizmo, doohickey, widget, thingamabob and their friends mean ‘the thing’ and are part of a wider group of words called placeholder names. (You will be getting a blog on those in due course, too, but examples everyone will recognise include ‘John Doe’ or ‘Joe Blogs’ for a person whose identity is unknown at present, usually deceased in the case of John Doe, and ‘contraption’, referring to a large machine which is clearly doing something…)
Whatsisface is a person whose name escapes you, but who is known to the person you’re speaking with, and whose identity they can make a reasonable guess at (you hope). You know, whatsisface, Amy’s uncle! Whatserface is the female equivalent. Whatsit works equally well for either gender, but alas none of them help me to remember your name if I meet you out of context!
There seems to be some consensus that a gizmo or widget is a gadget, of some sort. It may be that you don’t know what it does, or the proper name for it, but it’s clearly something slightly more technical than a rock.
Thingumabob, thingummy, thingamajig, are, interestingly, all recognised by my spell checker, in those variations. Thingy is clearly an abbreviation for them, and seems to be in younger usage than the longer versions. Thingummys are perhaps vaguer than gadgets. A gadget or gizmo might be a tool or piece of equipment, such as you find the back of your shed, rather than something a professional uses. It may also be something for which you don’t actually know the name.
For example, I would say ‘that bendy metal thingy you put down the sink when it’s blocked’, but ask my husband whether he needs a new gizmo for tightening the spokes on his bicycle wheels. Thus the difference – gizmos are slightly more technical. (That said, in our house, Gizmo is the cat, not christened by us.)
‘Gizmo’ is perfectly employed when you find something vaguely mechanical lying around the living room and ask your offspring or Other Half exactly what it is (and could they return please it to wherever it belongs!)
Whatjamacallit and its friends seldom appear written down, except when reporting speech. This is usually because writers usually have time to find out exactly what the thingy is called, and don’t have to resort to a placeholder word. You’re unlikely to come across a newspaper article with such imprecise terminology. Unless it’s something like this blog article, which is stuffed full of it. I like to buck the trend!!
Written reported speech, either taken verbatim in a factual report, or fictional, is a different animal. A mark of realistic-sounding dialogue in fiction is the presence of placeholder words, incomplete sentences, pauses, interruptions, hesitations and corrections. No-one really talks fluently all the time, especially if tired, ill or under pressure, but you’d think it, from reading certain books!
So, when you next find your brain unwilling to provide the noun you’re looking for, pause before you use your standard placeholder word, and maybe add to your vocabulary. Is it really a thingummy, or have you found a widget?
And I do apologise if I cause you to doubt what your default placeholder word actually is – that wasn’t my intention!