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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Where Did the Word "Gadget" Come From?

Michael Quinion is a former BBC radio reporter and the author of the book “Port Out, Starboard Home: The Fascinating Stories We Tell About the Words We Use” (see US version). He has a keen interest in etymology, the study of the origin of words. Michael’s following text from his website, which appears in similar form in the book, tries tracing the origin of the word “gadget” (used with permission).

This takes me back. As a callow young broadcaster, I was sent one day to a small village behind Brighton to talk to an old man who for many years had been Rudyard Kipling’s chauffeur. Among many other things, but for no good reason that I can now recall, he told me with great emphasis that Kipling had invented the word gadget about the year 1904.

I now know better. However, his assertion isn’t wholly wide of the truth, since Kipling did to some extent popularise it, in his Traffics and Discoveries of 1904: “Steam gadgets always take him that way”. There’s evidence, though, that the word had by then been around for many years, most probably among seafarers. Kipling may have picked it up during one of his journeys to India.

The seafaring origin confirms that a story often told in the US is also false. This holds that gadget comes from a Frenchman named Gaget who was involved with the construction of the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France in 1886. He was said to have sold miniature bronze versions of it in New York, each with his name on the bottom. Everybody wanted one of these Gagets and a new word was invented. That’s a nice try, but no cigar. The name of Gaget is indeed associated with the construction of the statue, since the workshop in Paris that created the copper outer skin of the monument was that of Gaget, Gauthier & Cie. And miniatures of the statue were sold, though none with his name on them, so far as I know. But otherwise, the story is false, not least because gadget – despite Kipling’s book – was not widely known until after World War I.

We now think of a gadget as being some small mechanical device, ill-defined perhaps, but certainly ingenious or novel. The evidence suggests that it was originally one of those hand-waving terms for something one temporarily can’t remember the technical name for – a thingummy, a whatsit, a what’s-his-name, a doohickey or dingus. There is anecdotal evidence, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, for this sense having been around since the 1850s.

The origin is rather obscure, but a plausible suggestion is that it comes from French gâchette, a lock mechanism, or from the French dialect word gagée for a tool.

The writer who put gadget on the written map was one Robert Brown, whose Spunyarn and Spindrift, A sailor boy’s log of a voyage out and home in a China tea-clipper appeared in 1886. He wrote: “Then the names of all the other things on board a ship! I don’t know half of them yet; even the sailors forget at times, 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 – just pro tem., you know”.


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