Origin of the word "Gizmo" (was Origin of the word "Tantrum")

Cohen, Gerald Leonard gcohen at UMR.EDU
Sun Dec 3 03:47:04 UTC 2006

This is highly speculative.  Those who object to speculation are hereby warned to read no further.
------------ Okay, for the few of you who are left, I have a few thoughts:

1) I'd be very surprised if a straightforward etymology of "gizmo" emerges.  If such an etymology existed, it would likely have been discovered by now.

2) At least a few slang terms similar in meaning to "gizmo" seem to have arisen non-traditionally: "a doodad," "a whatsis," "a hooziewhatsis: (sp. ?), "a whatchamacallit," "a thingumabob," "a thingumy."

3) In my study of various foreign languages there were moments when I witnessed (occasionally as participant) the intentional but humorous butchering of foreign phrases.  There was French "merkee buckup" (merci beaucoup) and the Russian word for "hello": "Straws with you" (zdravstvuite).  In fact, for at least twenty years after graduating college, the letters I received from one of my friends who had studied Russian with me as an undergraduate would begin with "Straws!"

4) In his message below, Jonathan Lighter suggests that we look for the origin of "gizmo" in a Pacific Rim language. Here's one possibility, however incorrect it may turn out to be.  In Japanese, "thank you" is "arigato" or (with an honorific) "arigato gozaimasu."
(The final "u" here isn't pronounced; and btw, my knowledge of Japanese is almost non-existent).

5) I now have a question for someone familiar with Japanese: Might some Americans studying Japanese or just picking up a few of its phrases have horsed around with "arigato gozaimasu" and altered it humorously to "arigato gizmo?" I.e., the sound of the second word is changed by partial analogy to the first word.  Cf. a similar development in American G.I. slang "mox nix," where the "x" in "mox" comes from the "x" in "nix"; standard German is "(Das) macht nichts" = That doesn't  matter.

6) If in fact some Americans did humorously/sophomorically say "arigato gizmo," the "rig" in "arigato" could be further humorously reanalyzed into the English word "rig" and the phrase might now sound something like "a rigged up gizmo." I.e., a contraption. I.e., a gizmo.

Gerald Cohen

From:   American Dialect Society on behalf of Jonathan Lighter
Reply To:       American Dialect Society
Sent:   Tuesday, November 28, 2006 12:36 PM
Subject:             Re: Origin of the word "Gizmo" (was Origin of the word "Tantrum")

Any new suggested etymologies for "gizmo/ gismo" ?  OED and HDAS are both at a loss.

  The OED entry (unlike another I might name) obscures the fact that the word first came to prominence in the U.S. naval services (perhaps especially in the Pacific) during WWII. It doesn't seem to appear in any pre-war glossaries of Annapolis slang, for example.

  I'd suggest looking at Chinese, Tagalog, or another Pacific Rim language.


"Douglas G. Wilson" <douglas at NB.NET> wrote:
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Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: "Douglas G. Wilson"
Subject: Re: Origin of the word "Tantrum"


Unknown to me anyway, and apparently to the modern dictionaries.

-- Doug Wilson

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