I have a guest post up at A Thing About Words, the blog of Merriam-Webster Unabridged, on the curious subject of placeholder words: What sort of yoke is that thingamajig?
Placeholder words, as you’ll probably know or will have guessed from the title, refer to things (or people, places, etc.) whose name is unknown, forgotten, or unnecessary in the context.
After briefly discussing everyday examples such as thing and stuff, I move on to the “elaborate and ever-growing set” whose members include whatchacallit and thingamabob:
Ever-growing in two senses: not only are there more of these words every time I look, but their syllables clump like crystals. Thing produced thingum and thingummy, which grew into thingamabob and thingamajig. And then there’s oojah and oojamaflip, whatsit, veeblefetzer, doodad and doohickey, whatchacallit and whatchamacallit, the infix “-ma” perhaps motivated by symmetry or prosody. Some placeholder words have been around for centuries and boast myriad variations to be reshuffled on a whim and sent tumbling into colloquial conversation.
One of my favourite placeholders is, I think, peculiar to Ireland or at any rate Hiberno-English: yoke. It’s in popular use around Ireland.
[Yoke] can refer to an unspecified object (Give us that yoke) or an indescribable person (You’re an awful yoke). Both are informal, and the latter is gently or affectionately pejorative. You can hear it in this video of Dublin phrases. Yoke can even serve as a root, like thing in the permutations above, yielding words such as yokeamabob, yokeamajig, and thingamayoke. Yokey and yokibus also have some currency. Fun words, for sure, but like attention-grabbing outfits they’re probably best not overused.
For more detail on Hiberno-English yoke (including colourful examples from literature), along with various other placeholder curios such as Philip K. Dick’s kipple, click here for the full yoke.