May 16, 2013

Case File #013.05.16: GADGET

The history of the word gadget, originally spelled gadjet, is almost as nebulous as the word's meaning is vague. Some etymologists and lexicographers say the word dates back to the 1850s, claiming it started out as some sort of naval jargon used to reference small mechanisms or fittings of unknown or indefinite name. Others claim the term was invented by British author Robert Brown for his Victorian sea-faring tale Spunyarn and Spindrift, which was published in 1886. (For the record, the term does indeed appear on page 378 of that book and is used in basically the same way we use it today.) And still a few others claim the word was coined around 1875 and derived from Gaget, Gauthier, & Cie, the name of the French foundry at which sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi had then begun working on the full-scale version of the Statue of Liberty. But regardless of which claim (if any) is true, most etymologists and lexicographers agree that the word was in wide use by the end of nineteenth century, and the majority believe it was probably derived from the French word gachette, which means “little mechanical thing.” The contemporary form gadget didn't appear until 1904, when author Rudyard Kipling used it in his short-story collection Traffics and Discoveries. And no, Kipling's book does not include a dim-witted cyborg detective among its cast of characters.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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