Mr. Gadjet?

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Fri Sep 21 13:55:45 UTC 2007

Here is some speculation about the origin of "gadjet, gadget." There are various
proposed origins from French words. (And an apparently-20th-century guess tries
to link the word with M. Gaget whose firm worked on the Statue of Liberty.}

The earliest reported publication is in 1886, in Spunyarn and Spindrift, A
Sailor Boy's Log of a Voyage Out and Home in a
China Tea-clipper [London] xxxi. 378: 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-womjust pro tem., you know.

The next earliest, AFAIK, from HDAS 1898 (with a 1897 preface, Cruise of the
Cachalot: Round the World after Sperm Whales, Frank T. Bullen (some editions
include a letter from Kipling, an early adopter of the word.) Here's the
passage from gutenberg (ch.2, p.6f ?):

The wheel was fixed upon the tiller in such a manner that the whole concern
travelled backwards and forwards across the deck in the maddest kind of way.
For the first quarter of an hour, in spite of the September chill, the sweat
poured off me in streams. And the course--well, if was not steering, it was
sculling; the old bumboat was wobbling all around like a drunken tailor with
two left legs. I fairly shook with apprehension lest the mate should come and
look in the compass. I had been accustomed to hard words if I did not steer
within half a point each way; but here was a "gadget" that worked me to death,
the result being a wake like a letter S. Gradually I got the hang of the thing,
becoming easier in my mind on my own account. Even that was not an unmixed
blessing, for I had now some leisure to listen to the goings-on around the
deck.       Such brutality I never witnessed before. On board of English ships
(except men-of-war) there is practically no discipline, which is bad, but this
sort of thing was maddening.

Many sources, including 1931 letters to the Times, suggest a British Navy

A British publication, Colburn's The united service journal and
naval and military magazine. 1884 PART I. [London: Simpkin and Marshall], [1829-
]. 687pp. 63 vols [Sabin Americana] has an account of an 1880s event. In a
Typhoon: a true Story of a Close Shave by Lieutenant E. P. Statham,
R.N On p319 "Gadjet says he can see the land."  p320 "that there
Gadjet"..."Gadjet, being a quarter-master and a garrulous spite of
old Gadjet's disappointment"

So we have a British quartermaster, an old man, with a name spelled the same as
in the 1886 British usage, also with reference to China. A quartermaster,
according to OED is "A petty officer who attends to the steering of the ship,
the binnacle, signals, stowing of the hold, etc."

The 1897/8 usage concerns steering a ship with a gadget, perhaps some
apparatus involved with that steering.

Mere coincidence or worth further research?

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society -

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