By Fattie


2014-03-28 09:39:55 8 Comments

{This question came to mind because of the recent question .. What do you call the interconnecting bits of a puzzle piece in English? }

In my opinion, in English, it's reasonably common that—strangely enough—there is no word for a certain reasonably common thing. And indeed, speakers prefer to use an ad-hoc description for the thing in question on an ongoing basis, rather than, as you'd probably expect, a specific or technical word falling into general use and coming to be "the word" for the thing. {Contrast milieu such as say Germany or Japan, where the culture, within 12 seconds, codifies exact, specific, universally-accepted terms for anything that comes along, whether a cultural phenomenon, technical object, or the like.}

I think of this as "the Thingy substitution", or the things in question as 'thingy things' because, well, they are usually referred to as

the thingy that...

The perfect example is

the thingies on jigsaw puzzle pieces.

(Note that, 100% of English-native speakers will understand exactly what I am referring to.)

To repeat, native English speakers—in my opinion—prefer to stick (even over decades) with ad-hoc thingy-esque multi-word descriptions rather than adopting a new word generally accepted.

{On the other hand, of course, the etats-unis in particular is notorious for generating zillions of acronyms and other coinages—however, I don't think the two concepts are at odds, both are true.}

Now there's possibly a term for this phenomenon among linguists e.g., "grasp words", "thingy words" or "ad-hoc non-naming conventions" etc.

  • (a) Does anyone know such a term?

  • (b) Indeed, does anyone agree that this is a phenomenon amongst particularly English speakers?

  • (c) Indeed, is this all well-known and explored by academic linguists/etc and I'm just behind the times?

8 comments

@Tushar Raj 2015-06-03 09:20:07

You seem to be talking about placeholder names

Placeholder names are words that can refer to objects or people whose names are temporarily forgotten, irrelevant, or unknown in the context in which they are being discussed.

Quoting from the wikipedia article:

These placeholders typically function grammatically as nouns and can be used for people (e.g., John Doe, Jane Doe), objects (e.g., widget) or places (e.g., Anytown, USA).

Stuart Berg Flexner and Harold Wentworth's Dictionary of American Slang (1960) uses the term kadigan for placeholder words. They define "kadigan" as a synonym for thingamajig.

Also note:

These words exist in a highly informal register of the English language. In formal speech and writing, words like accessory, paraphernalia, artifact, instrument, or utensil are preferred; these words serve substantially the same function, but differ in connotation.


I know you don't trust wikipedia much, so I'm trying to find other links which use the word:

@Tushar Raj 2015-06-03 18:50:54

@JoeBlow: The 'name' here doesn't apply exclusively to people. It does apply to things. And 'thingie' is a placeholder name. But I think the term is tad too broad for your liking.

@Tushar Raj 2015-06-04 06:23:16

@JoeBlow: I'm sorry, but I've no idea what you're getting at. Just a couple things I'd like to say: (1) 'Placeholder names' is a term, and placeholder here isn't restricted to its dictionary definition; just like kangaroo doesn't refer to the animal itself in 'kangaroo words'. (2) I think that more often than not, these words are used when you forget /don't know the actual term rather then when you know it and are deliberately avoiding it.

@Tushar Raj 2015-06-04 09:50:39

@JoeBlow: Exactly, 'relating to hopping, (a property kangaroos share)'. And so 'relating to holding places, a property placeholders share'

@Tushar Raj 2015-06-04 10:29:01

@JoeBlow: It's not a placeholder if you're deliberately insulting him. It is if you can't remember his name and choose to employ that particular term.

@Drew 2015-06-04 15:37:07

+1, but "placeholder name" is redundant. A placeholder is always a name (even if it takes the form of a symbol or a stick of wood).

@Tushar Raj 2015-06-04 15:42:08

@Drew: Yeah, it is. I guess they added it to avoid confusion with the vanilla sense of placeholder.

@Drew 2015-06-04 15:43:20

@TusharRaj: What vanilla sense is that?

@Tushar Raj 2015-06-04 15:45:45

@Drew: Something, anything, that holds a place, as against specifically terms everyone uses when they can't remember/don't know the real word.

@Drew 2015-06-04 15:50:31

@TusharRaj: In that case, it's almost the opposite of placeholder name: anonymous placeholder - a name that tries not to suggest what it stands for. It's the equivalent of using x or lambda instead of a name that might suggest the kinds of replacement for it that are possible.

@Margana 2015-06-06 21:09:02

Well, we don't really seem to have found a word which pleases Joe. Perhaps the only kind of thing we can call his kind of word is... well... a "thingy". Or "oojamaflip", or "wozzname", or "fandoodle". Is it time to admit defeat and decide that (to quote my reply to Roy):

We can't find the word for that kind of word which stands in for the word we can't find.

@Terpsichore 2014-03-28 11:02:08

I can think of several words that are thingy-type words, like gizmo, widget, gubbins, thingumajig, wotsit, but I don't know of a word for those words. Nonce word is the closest, but to qualify as one of those a word has to be a one-occasion word, invented spontaneously to fill gap that no existing word can fill. The words I listed, as well as thingy itself, are general-purpose fillers that have been used for decades, and I don't think they count as nonce words. There may not actually be a word to describe the category, but no doubt someone will prove otherwise.

@Fattie 2014-03-28 11:59:07

Outstanding points ..

@Terpsichore 2014-03-28 13:09:23

@Joe Blow: A shorter version might be, "A made-up name for an object whose true name is either unknown or forgotten by the speaker."

@Fattie 2014-03-28 13:18:19

That's definitely better! :) perhaps more like: "One of the nonsense-like words, which is used for an object whose true name is either unknown by the speaker or indeed there is factually no true name for the object."

@Edwin Ashworth 2014-03-28 15:37:30

'Nonce word is the closest, but to qualify as one of those a word has to be a one-occasion word'. So there are no nonce words with a finite lifespan? Interboldigise. That's probably one. Interboldigise. There it goes.

@John Gietzen 2014-06-12 04:18:34

These are some sort of preposition, right?

@jejorda2 2015-05-20 18:30:51

The Dictionary of American Slang refers to these types of words as kadigans, and cadigan is a term used elsewhere, but I don't think it is a widely recognized term.

@John Lawler 2015-06-03 18:36:56

Nonce terms is the general name for whatchamacallit, thingy, whozis, gadget, jigger, etc -- terms you use when you can't recall the name or are confident your addressee will understand what you mean (often because you're pointing at it). They suit for the nonce; essentially they're inflatable pronouns.

@Mitch 2015-06-03 23:34:41

@JohnLawler I thought a nonce word was one made up on the spot and never used again. All the 'whatsits' and 'thingamabobs' are fairly well repeated.

@Fattie 2015-06-04 05:11:31

By the way Terp -- you use the word "filler" in describing the phenomenon, in fact, that is a superb choice of word. As I mention, as well as the fact that there is perhaps no word for the SWR in question, it's actually just literally difficult to describe the err, thingies, in question -- "filler" is a great aid here. You're the only person who hit on it.

@John Lawler 2015-06-04 14:35:48

@Mitch: Nobody keeps track of whether nonce words are ever repeated. Like other kinds of words, the good ones do repeat. I rather like thinking of them as inflatable words -- you never know what the shape is until you blow it up, and some work better than others.

@selovich 2015-06-03 06:34:31

I absolutely loved this question. Of course, we can all think of a handful of words like thingy, that simply act as a stand-in word for the word we are thinking of but cannot, at present, grasp.

The 1960 Dictionary of American slang uses the term kadigin for placeholder words, defining it as a synonym for thingamajig.

Dr. Richard Nordquist, Professor Emeritus of English, writes in Crossing Boundaries: Studies in English Language, Literature, and Culture in a Global Environment, originally published in 2009:

The linguistic term for such peculiar sounding words as "thingamajig" and "whatchamacallit" is placeholder, or, less formally, tongue-tipper or kadigin: a word used to signal that a speaker does not know or cannot remember a more precise word for something.

William Safire, author, presidential speechwriter, and writer of The New York Time's column "On Language" addresses popular etymology in his incredibly popular, and entertaining, column. The focus of his January 9, 2005 piece, "Whosit's Whatchamacallit" is all about your topic:

"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."

In the article, Safire provides fascinating history and etymology of various tongue-tippers. We also learn that English may not be able to lay claim to all tounge-tippers:

"British English also has its words for the unremembered objects. In 1962, The Sunday Times explained that "'ujah' . . . was used as widely and as indiscriminately as 'gimmick' and 'gadget' are used now." It was usually spelled oojah and was thought to be of Hindustani origin."

I hope you enjoy reading the entirety of Safire's column. Between placeholder, kadigin and tongue-tipper, the last one in my opinion is the best. I think that it's important to have a memorable word when trying to remember the name for the group of words that we use when we just can't seem to remember the actual word.

@Fattie 2015-06-03 09:08:37

i love the answer! now with massive bounty!

@user70809 2015-06-03 16:33:12

I can't seem to find the word kadigan anywhere except in reference to the 1960 slang dictionary. I suspect it is now obsolete. Placeholder and tongue-tipper are far more common today.

@Sven Yargs 2015-06-03 20:43:57

Great find, selovich—but note that the spelling in Wentworth & Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960) is kadigin, not kadigan. The word (with the one-word definition "thingamajig") is retained in the second edition of Wentworth & Flexner (1975) but vanishes from the third edition (1995)—the one rewritten by Chapman & Kipfer. I have spotted kadigin in a long list of placeholder words from H.L. Mencken's American Mercury (1924), and will publish that list as a supplement to your answer shortly.

@selovich 2015-06-03 20:44:00

Perhaps Nordquist's 2009 reference to 'kadigin' sounded the word's death knell!

@selovich 2015-06-03 20:49:12

Thank you Sven for the correct spelling! Now... for the pronunciation of the word?

@Fattie 2015-06-08 03:56:24

I think in short tongue-tippers is the best term for the set. It made me realise it is similar to sets like "tongue-twisters". It's the perfect term. Anything "placeholder" is wrong because it's not. Even Miss Pound's "indefinite names" is not good because it's not a name (just as an epithet or cuss word address is not a name, but another type of thing). So, tongue-tippers :)

@Fattie 2016-04-22 14:48:14

sorry @selovich and others, I forgot to Tick an answer after all these years. Cheers!

@Sven Yargs 2015-06-03 21:34:43

As a supplement to selovich's excellent suggestion kadigin, I offer this discussion and list of placeholder words (here called indefinite names) from a longer article by Louise Pound in The American Mercury, volume 3 (1924) [combined snippets]:

American Indefinite Names

Do other races show the same love for indefinite names and the same resourcefulness in coining them that is shown by Americans? The typical American, at least the fairly youthful American, would apparently rather call something a thingumbob, or a dingus, or a doodad than speak out the exact name. It seems more attractive to him to employ some indefinite term in current vogue than to go to the trouble to utter the specific word. If he fails to recall the latter instantly, or if he does not know it, his employment of some whimsical indefinite substitute is nearly inevitable. This device is supposed to provide that informal or non-serious touch which we go to such lengths in these days to secure.

Following is a list of indefinite names recently collected in the Central West. It might easily be increased by a canvass of other regions, or by going through the volumes of Dialect Notes, the journal of the American Dialect Society, which endeavors to record deviations from standard English in all parts of the United States. One doubts whether the English Dialect Dictionary, that scholarly and valuable work compiled by Joseph and Mary Wright of Oxford, contains so long a list of such terms as a similar American dictionary would show if it existed. One suspects that a liking for coinages of this type is characteristically American. The topic of the relation of peculiarities or grotesqueries of language to race characteristics has been given little attention by philologists; yet our curious linguistic creations are usually interesting for their own sake, and they often have a certain social or psychological influence as well. The list of Central Western indefinite terms—many or most of which may be general over the United States—reads like this:—

Thingumbob, thingumabob, thingumajig, thingumajiggen, thingumadoodle, dingus, dingbat, doofunny, doojumfunny, doodad, doodaddle, doogood, dooflickus, dooflicker, doojohn, doojohnny, dooflinkus, doohickey, doobobbus, doobobble, doohinkey, doobiddy, doohackey, gadget, whatyoumaycallit, fumadiddle, thinkumthankum, dinktum, jigger, fakus, kadigin, thumadoodle, optriculum, ringumajig, ringumajing, ringumajiggen, boopendaddy, thumadoodle, dibbie.

I'm skeptical of the note of American exceptionalism in Pound's appreciation of the tendency in U.S. English to use fuzzy stand-in words to refer to things not precisely identified. Still—even after adjusting for the fact that thumadoodle appears in the list twice—there are an awful lot of words in her list for a word you can't think of. I suspect that our language has become far more streamlined today as a result of the steamrolling by mass media and mass culture of colorful variants for describing a whateveritis.

In any case, Louise Pound considers the correct blanket term to be indefinite names—and who can argue with a fumadiddle capable of collecting such a fakus of boopendaddies as kadigin and optriculum?

@selovich 2015-06-03 23:50:51

This is such a fun topic! I'm now remembering summers spent in Ireland on a farm. The folks there used the term 'yoke' in place of thing, as in, "Hand me that yoke over there." I would love to learn kadigins from other languages like German and French. Will they also have a singsong quality to them? And how have we decided to pronounce kadigin?

@Michelle 2015-06-03 22:00:55

I believe, while informal, the word "dingus" could be used for a name of something you may not remember. It comes from the Afrikaans word, "ding" for thing.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dingus

@Sven Yargs 2015-06-03 22:04:33

It's also what Sam Spade calls the "black bird" in The Maltese Falcon, an amusingly offhand way to refer to so precious an object.

@Ron Royston 2015-06-03 18:31:48

Psychosemantic

When the meaning of a word is largely the result of one's own imagination.

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=psychosemantic

@Ron Royston 2015-06-04 15:06:22

c'mon. I thought I nailed it!

@Margana 2015-06-06 20:59:01

Hang on Roy. It's not the meaning of the word we want: we know that. It's the word itself that we're trying to find. It's a word for that kind of word which stands for the word one can't find, largely as the result of one's faulty memory. It's just that we can't find the word for that kind of word which stands for the word we can't find.

@sdfolsom 2014-09-25 16:51:19

In fan discourse, there's the term "Buffy speak," derived from the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which evidently featured a great deal of "thingys" and "whatsits."

More professional sounding phrases would be "forgotten name placeholders," or "approximations."

@Nicole 2015-06-03 18:51:55

TV Tropes has a whole page dedicated to it, in fact.

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