Due to generations of countless variables, I am a member of a group identified as suburban Americans. Most members of our loosely defined group occasionally look around ourselves & realize we are surrounded by more belongings than we need. The next couple of posts are dedicated to words we use to define our stuff.
The Old French word estoffe referred to quilted material, furniture or provisions. It made its way into English as stuff in the 1300s, meaning quilted material worn under chain mail. In the 1400s stuff also began to mean material for working with in various trades. This meaning broadened by the 1500s to the modern meaning, matter of an unspecified nature. Also in the 1500s, the closely related word stuffing gained two meanings: material for filling cushions, & seasoned mixture used to stuff fowls before cooking.
The literal sense of the Old French word junc referred to rushes or reeds, while the figurative sense meant of little value. English sailors of the 1300s re-spelled the word junke & used it to label both old cable or rope, & worthless stuff. The word maintained its nautical connection in the 1800s & referred to old refuse from boats & ships, which soon broadened to mean old, discarded items of any kind. The term junk mail was born in 1954, junk art showed up in 1966, & 1971 brought us the term junk food. The word junkie, meaning drug addict, came to us in 1923. The Chinese sailing ship type of junk comes from an entirely different root, the Malay word jong (Iarge ship), which made its way to English through Portuguese.
Claptrap is a theater term from the 1730s. Made up of clap & trap, it initially defined any gimmick or trick inserted for the sole purpose of catching applause. By 1819 claptrap morphed into meaning cheap or showy language, which led to its modern meanings, either pretentious, insincere language, or rubbish or unnecessary belongings.
In the 1570s the word knick-knack was born, a reduplication of the word knack, which came to English in the 1300s meaning a deception, trick or device. By the 1700s, knick-knack picked up the meaning toy, and from there it morphed into our modern meaning, a cheap ornament or unnecessary decorative item.
I find it intriguingly honest that the words knick-knack & claptrap both began as some sort of deception, but now refer to the unnecessary things with which we surround ourselves. How many of us deceive ourselves into believing we need these things?
We derived the word tchotchke (or chachkie) from a Yiddish word meaning trinket. It came to English in 1964. As much as I enjoy The Urban Dictionary, I typically don’t cite crowdsourced sources. In this case, though, the Urban Dictionary’s definition of tchotchke is too good to pass up: “…just look around your house or someone else's and whatever you see that a burgler (sic) wouldn't steal is probably Tchotchke.”
Good readers, I’m hoping some etymological tchotchke above inspires you to make a comment.
Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Etymonline, Merriam Webster, The Urban Dictionary, & the OED.
English is rife with colorful terms referring to irrelevant, useless, or empty words. As we ramp up to ramping up to elections, let’s celebrate a few of them.
Bunk appeared in American English about 1900 as a shortened form of bunkum, meaning nonsense. By most accounts the term was born in the US House of Representatives when North Carolina Representative Felix Walker threw in his two cents regarding Missouri’s statehood in relation to the Mason-Dixon Line. He needed to say something that would appear in the papers back home in Buncombe, so he unabashedly made a "long, dull, irrelevant speech." In time, Buncombe shifted to bunkum, which got shortened to bunk.
Blatherskite was born during the American Revolution, & refers to both the words spoken by a talkative, nonsensical person & the person him/herself. It comes of blather, meaning to babble. Blather is a Scottish term derived from an Old Norse word meaning to wag the tongue; added to skite, meaning a contemptible individual. We see a related ending in the word cheapskate, & a related beginning in the term blithering idiot. Skite also originated in Old Norse, from a word meaning to shoot, which apparently is what the Old Norse thought should be done with blatherers.
Bosh came to English in the 1830s from Turkish. Its literal Turkish meaning of empty applies in English only to meaningless speech or writing.
Claptrap appeared in the 1730s & meant a stage trick to catch applause. Since then we’ve lost the applause-inducing element of the term & it simply means cheap, nonsensical or pretentious language.
There are so many great synonyms for bunk, blatherskite, bosh & claptrap. Followers, what empty-word words would you add to the list?
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymonline.com, Hugh Rawson’s Wicked Words & the OED.
I write for teens, narrate audio books, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.