That a copywriter loves words goes without saying. So, why say it? Every post needs a hitch, and that was mine. You see, while I love words, I’m especially fond of words that people use when they don’t know the word they’re looking for. English is full of idioms that the forgetful or simply ignorant use to name things they don’t know the name of. Among my favorites is whatchamacallit. In googling the expression, I found that Wikipedia went with the obvious, that being a candy bar that Hershey makes. And there’s a Chardonnay with the same name — a bit odd for a category that prides itself on erudite taste. But the expression is older than the confection and the Chardonnay. Webster’s dates the first known use of whatchamacallit to 1928 — the candy bar wouldn’t show up for another 50 years.
My mom and dad both used the expression, though I think my dad did more often as mom’s vocabulary was a bit larger. I use it, too. As I get older, I imagine I will use it more often since the names of common objects will elude me with growing frequency. Everyone knows those awkward moments when you want an allen wrench, three-prong adaptor, honing steel, or pinking shears but your memory slogs through the data banks so slowly you just ask for that whatchamacallit.
Whatchamacallit and its kin — thingamabob, thingamajig, doohickey, doodad, whatnot, gizmo, and widget — serve us well, saving us from admitting that we don’t know what we’re talking about, at least the name of thing we’re talking about. There are also spelling variations on these terms and some cross-pollination as in whatchamathing, whatchamathingy, whatchamajig, etc.
It seems to me that the premier term in this class of expressions is whatchamacallit since it can serve for any forgotten term. Widget and gizmo, on the other hand, generally allude to special function objects — and in the digital era — widget, in particular, refers to simple apps or strings of code, but it remains a generalized term for almost anything that’s produced in a factory or on an assembly line. Thingamabob and thingamajig are usually used to describe a tool or object needed to fix or complete a task. Doodad and doohickey are used when referring to a small object required to make something work as intended.
So, when you’re at a loss for words, remember there’s no shame in not knowing or not remembering. Shame attaches to not caring that you don’t know and not spending a moment to find out — the moment that finds you saying oh, so that’s what it’s called.
©2018 John Hofmeister. Originally published at jhofmeister.com/musings
When I'm not writing for clients, I write about things that interest me.