Sun, Jan 09, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Exploring the world of tongue-tippers with a whatchamacallit

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

On the Dow Jones OpinionJournal Web site, Claudia Rosett -- the modern Inspector Javert of Les Miserables on the oil-for-food trail of Jean Valjean -- reported on a news conference held by the UN secretary-general: "The contract that [Kofi] Annan referred to as `this Cotecna one,' as if he weren't quite sure what whichamahoosy everyone was talking about."

Pressed to reveal her source of the unfamiliar word, Rosett would say only, "I borrowed it from an old family friend, who when she couldn't remember the name for something, would call it a whichamahoosy."

I touched database with Google and can offer only one previous citation of that particular mouth-filler: a February 2002 use by a blogger who styles himself LoneRanger. It is related, I suspect, to hoosydingy, a word I have long used as a nonsense substitute when a specific term has slipped my mind. But even though I have tried all the variant spellings, I cannot find hoosydingy -- hoosiedinghy? -- in print anywhere. Closest use was by Kevin Paul Dupont in The Boston Globe early last year reporting about a hockey player's "receiving off-site physical therapy for his aching whatchamacallit or whodingy."

We are now into the creative world of "tongue-tippers," terms used in place of words on the tip of the speaker's tongue but just beyond linguistic reach. When a reader of The Houston Chronicle expressed his curiosity about the words dojigger and thingy, the writer Leon Hale replied in an explosion of synonymy: "It's the same as a whatchamacallit or a thingumabob or a doomaflitchy or a how-you-call-it or a doodad or a hootis or a what's-it or a gizmo or a gadget or a widget or a doohicky."

The Texas writer seemed put off by thingy. Perhaps that is because the etymology of its predecessor, thingumbob (now with a syllable added as thingumabob), was first reported by Francis Grose in his 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: "Mr. Thingumbob: a vulgar address or nomination to any person whose name is unknown, the same as Mr. What-d'ye-call'em." The courageous lexicographer Grose then gave the reason for the vulgarity: "Thingumbobs; testicles."

Today, though thingy has one sense of "penis," as does thingamajig less frequently, most of the other terms are substitutes for a "small mechanical device whose name escapes the speaker."

Gadget entered the written English language, according to the OED, in 1886 and outlasted its semantic competition: "Even the sailors forget at times," goes the citation from Robert Brown's "Spunyarn and Spindrift," "and if the exact name of anything they want happens to slip from their memory, they call it a chicken-fixing, or a gadjet, or a gill-guy, or a timmey-noggy, or a wim-wom." The one that lasted was gadjet, with its spelling changed to gadget as the word entered Standard English. In the 1920s it spawned gimmick and in the 1940s gizmo.

Gimmick, however, took on meanings beyond "a clever mechanical device." The reporter Jack Lait in 1930 captured its larcenous connotation, defining it as "any contrivance to make a fair transaction or contest unfair." In the phrase "You gotta have a gimmick," the sense is less deceptive: "an original marketing idea or selling proposition to attract customers."

Another tongue-tipper that began in gadgetry in the 1920s and extended its meaning later in the century is hootenanny. The astronaut Walter Schirra used it in the mechanical sense in 1962: "Don't worry about it. That's just the hootenanny valve on the watchamacallit fluttering a little."

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