The Grammarphobia Blog

Gizmo version 2.0

Q: It turns out that there may be linguistic benefits to my being a techie. Here’s a heads-up on the latest in virtual development: The word “gizmo” has a new meaning. It’s the frame by which you apply an effect or action on a virtual surface or solid. Add THAT to your Funk & Wagnall’s!

A: Thanks for the heads-up, but let’s wait a bit to see if “gizmo” 2.0 has staying power.

For the time being, we’ll stick with the traditional meaning (that is, if “traditional” is the proper adjective to describe a slang word that’s relatively new as these things go).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “gizmo” as a US slang term meaning a gadget, gimmick, or a thingamajig. (Don’t worry. We’ll return to “thingamajig” later.)

The first citation for “gizmo” in the OED is from the July 19, 1943, issue of Time magazine: “Gizmo—a term of universal significance, capable of meaning ‘gadget,’ ‘stuff,’ ‘thing,’ ‘whozis’ or almost anything else the speaker wants it to.”

The word is spelled “gismo” in all of the other OED citations, including this one from  the Aug. 1, 1970, issue of the New Yorker: “Every gismo that made use of a clothes hanger will be demonstrated by its inventor.”

The OED entry spells the word “gismo” and lists “gizmo” as a variant, but the two standard dictionaries we consult the most reverse that order.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have entries for “gizmo,” with “gismo” listed as a lesser-used variant.

Well, we promised to get back to “thingamajig,” so here goes. The OED defines it as a colloquial noun with the same meaning as “thingummy,” which is defined this way:

“A thing or (less commonly) person of which the speaker or writer cannot at the moment recall the name, or which he or she is unable to or does not care to specify precisely; a ‘whatchamacallit.’ Also used as the name of a person, place, etc., in place of the actual name (as Mr Thingummy, etc.).”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “thingamajig” is from the June 1824 issue of the Casket, a literary monthly in Philadelphia: “I’d a lot of cousins, that ‘com’d all the way down from Varmount to larn the fashions, and to hear and see all the cute and curious thingumajigs of the Old Colony.’ ”

The word “thingummy” showed up a century earlier in an English translation of the works of Rabelais: “In Languedoc they call every Thing (estreé) Thingumy, that they must not name.”

The OED says “thingamajig” is apparently an extended version of “thingummy” or of the obsolete 17th-century “thingum” (a trifling detail) or of the parent of these slang or obsolete offspring, “thing.”

We’ll save the noun “thing,” one of the oldest words in English, for another day.

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