You got that thingumabob? Thingamajig? Whatsit? Doodad? You know, the widget, the gadget, the doohickey? The, uh, gizmo there?
Sometimes you have a thing of some function – perhaps manufactured by Acme or perhaps cooked up by Joe Schmoe or Fnu Lnu or by my dude Mister Whatsisname – and there’s totally a real word for it, but maybe you don’t remember it or maybe you never knew it. You need it to reticulate some splines or to foo the bar, so you need to ask for it. But thing is just too vague, you know? You need to communicate that it’s some kind of contrived device with a definite purpose, and also that you don’t remember a better name for it but you shouldn’t be judged for that. So you use a placeholder name.
Of which there are several available. Some convey most directly that the speaker has forgotten the name: thingummy, thingumabob, thingamajig, thingy, whatsits, whatchamacallit. Others can convey not just thingummy-ness but obscurantism: “A differential is a caucus on the rear gadjet that centrifugally operates the twiggler in the doodad on the fifth wheel,” as The Marines Magazine had it in 1916. Some function more as a generic, of which a particular item’s particular name may be a subset. And some have become specific things in themselves, at least some of the time.
The “I totally have no idea and I’m going to be up front about it” words have a long pedigree. Thingummy showed up in the early 1700s as a diminutive form of thingum, which has been around since the mid-1600s (and was probably formed as a mock-Latin version of thing, which in its turn is a word from the Germanic mists of time originally referring to a council, then to a matter discussed before a council, and then to any act or matter, and at length to any old thing at all). Thingy showed up about a half century after thingummy. Thingumabob (also spelled thingamabob) also showed up in the mid-1700s, following on jiggumbob and kickumbob from the mid-1600s meaning the same thing (the exact reason for the bob is not altogether known), but thingamajig, which uses the same jig as in jiggumbob, didn’t appear until the early 1800s, followed a couple of decades later by jigamaree (which, again, means the same kind of thing). On the other hand, whatsit, which (I hope) requires no etymological explication, appeared near the end of the 1800s, and whatchamacallit not until the mid-1900s (although what-d’ye-call-it, spelled variously, including such as whatchicaltes, showed up starting in the 1600s).
The ones that have taken on a stronger sense than mere confusion are, overall, more recent.
Doodad apparently dates all the way back to the later 1800s, though it shows up more starting in the early 1900s. It seems to have started by referring to ornamental items, either around the house or on the clothing: you could, for instance, “pin a doodad of some sort on your nightie.” Over time it has gained a sense of some minor instrumental item, such as an attachment or implement used for adjusting. In my own experience, doodads tend to be fiddly.
Doohickey names a doodad or a hickey or, more to the point, a merger of both. Hickey, I should say, first showed up in the early 1900s as a word that used to be like doodad and the rest of these, but once it gained the particular sense of ‘love-bite mark’ starting in the 1930s, that pretty much eclipsed the rest. However, doohickey had already shown up by 1914 and was not necked out by that shift in sense. It seems to convey more pointedly than doodad, gizmo, gadget, or widget the fact that the speaker doesn’t know the name of the thing and perhaps also that the speaker is uncertain as to its exact nature and function; it may or may not be relevant that, unlike those other words, it has three syllables, of which the first is stressed and the second may be as well.
Gizmo showed up during World War II. Life magazine in 1945 said gizmo “is Marine and Navy usage for any old thing you can’t put a name to.” In 1944 Jim Griffing Lucas in Combat Correspondent called gizmo “a Marine Corps term. It is the equivalent of the civilian ‘doo-dad,’ and is applicable to anything for which more descriptive terminology is not immediately available.” There’s no clear indication of how the name was confected. I would venture to say that, inasmuch as gizmo is used today, it is typically used for something that has some degree of technical ingenuity. The z helps that.
Gadget is now in a class of its own, thanks in part to Inspector Gadget (and perhaps also to Gidget, movie surfer girl played by Sandra Dee; Gidget is supposedly from girl plus midget but, come on, she was 5 foot 4) but also thanks to broad usage, matched only by widget. It has even been used as a fictional name on various occasions as early as the first decade of the 1900s. As evidence that gadget is considered a completely normal word, note that Green’s Dictionary of Slang doesn’t even list its usual senses (because they’re not slang), just a couple of prurient meanings.
Gadget has been around longer than some; its earliest published uses are from the mid-1880s. There is some suggestion that it comes from French gâchette, which refers to a locking mechanism. However, there’s no clear observed path from the one to the other in usage and sense, and the /ʃ/ to /dʒ/ development is, if we’re being honest, only middling plausible. In any event, gadget is now used to mean, as Wiktionary puts it, “any device or machine, especially one whose name cannot be recalled. Often either clever or complicated” – and in particular, as an informal sense, “any consumer electronics product.”
Widget has wandered farthest in sense from whatsit and thingamajig: it is now treated as an actual kind of thing – or multiple kinds of things. It’s so well established as a word that it doesn’t appear at all in Green’s. Many of us know it as a name for simple applications and interface elements in computers, mobile devices, and websites (for example, all of the boxes you see down the right column of my blog are widgets); it has had this sense since the early 1990s. Some of us also know widget as the name for the small pressurized item floating in a can of “draft-style” beer that squeals out nitrogen when you open the can – a sense that also showed up in the early 1990s. But it has been used as a generic placeholder name for commercial items, used in examples in economics texts and such like, at least since the 1930s.
There are a few different accounts of the etymology of widget, and if you find one that sounds cute or clever or clear you can assume it’s pure fiction – for instance, in one B-movie I watched one Saturday afternoon in my teens (I think it was the 1942 Wildcat), one of the characters claims it came from a misreading of midget. The real original source is known, or at least seems to be: the 1924 play Beggar on Horseback by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, in which it is some undescribed fanciful manufactured item:
Yes. Big business. What business are we in?
Widgets. We’re in the widget business.
The widget business?
Yes, sir! I suppose I’m the biggest manufacturer in the world of overhead and underground A-erial widgets. Miss You!
Let’s hear what our business was during the first six months of the fiscal year. [To Neil.] The annual report.
“The turnover in the widget industry last year was greater than ever. If placed alongside the Woolworth Building it would stretch to the moon. The operating expenses alone would furnish every man, woman and child in the United States, China and similar places with enough to last for eighteen and one-half years, if laid end to end.”
And wait for September 17th!
That’s to be National Widget Week! The whole country!
What we don’t know is how Kaufman and Hart came up with the word. Probably it just sounded good, but exactly why it sounded good is another matter – likely from resemblance to gadget and perhaps wedge or whatsit or fidget or…
Anyway, the word caught on, and, like widgets generally, has proven a useful simple little implement. Not quite as mechanical as a gadget, perhaps, or as gee-whiz as a gizmo, or as fiddly as a doodad, but definitely more definite than a doohickey.