Q: For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard the phrase “what not” used much like “et cetera.” I’m curious about the etymology. I searched your archives but can’t find that you’ve written about it. Have you?
A: No, we haven’t written about it yet, so let’s remedy that now.
You may be surprised to hear this, but the term “whatnot” (it’s usually one word today) has been around for hundreds of years, dating back to the mid-1500s.
When the usage first appeared, as two words, it could mean “anything,” “everything,” “anything and everything,” or “all sorts of things,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest OED example is from The Comedye of Acolastus, John Palsgrave’s 1540 translation of a Latin carnival play written in 1529 by the Dutch writer Gulielmus Gnapheus:
“Excesse of fleshely pleasures … hath taken awaye all thynges … my goodes or substance, my name .i. my good name and fame, my frendes, my glory .i. my renoume or estimation, what not? .i. what thyng is it that she hath not taken from me?” (Palsgrave uses the abbreviation “.i.” for the Latin id est, or “that is,” usually rendered as “i.e.”)
Today, according to the dictionary, “whatnot” is used as a “final item of an enumeration” and means “anything else, various things besides; ‘whatever you like to call it.’ ”
The first Oxford example for the term used as a final item in a series is from a Dec. 21, 1663, entry in the diary of Samuel Pepys: “The strange variety of people … bakers, brewers, butchers, draymen, and what not.”
Since the early 1800s, the OED says, the term has also been used for an “article of furniture consisting of an open stand with shelves one above another, for keeping or displaying various objects, as ornaments, curiosities, books, papers, etc.”
The dictionary’s first example of the term used for an open stand for bric-a-brac is from a Dec. 21, 1808, letter by Lady Sarah Spencer (later Baroness Lyttelton) to her brother, Bob, a 16-year-old midshipman in the Royal Navy and later Capt. Sir Robert Cavendish Spencer. Note her italics for “what-nots,” suggesting the usage was relatively new:
“There is a new and very handsome thick carpet put down in the old library; of course therefore we breakfasted in the drawing-room, while all the old chairs, tables, what-nots, and sofas were torn up by the roots to make room for the new-comer.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)