What’s that thing called again? Placeholder names in English

What do you say when you don’t know or forget the name of an object or a person? In this Academic blog, our Director of Studies, Marianne Arake will talk about some weird and wonderful Placeholder Names in English, their meaning and use. This is the first of a series of academic posts to be published once a month here in our Tti blog. Watch this space!

girl with question mark

If you follow politics you must have noticed politicians often bringing a certain average Joe into their debates and speeches. And on the newspapers or the news you probably encountered a John Doe (or his female version Jane Doe). And you asked yourself… Who are these people? Are they famous?

No, they are not famous. Some are not even real people, mind you. These are what we call Placeholder names, very common in many languages and of course in English too. The average Joe is nothing but a term coined to refer to an ordinary citizen, it’s more common in the US than in Britain, but widely used in both countries nevertheless. You would probably hear something like this… “I will not govern for the rich, I will govern for the average Joe…” or similar.

John and his “wife” Jane Doe are names used instead of real names to refer to real people whose names perhaps can’t be disclosed or are unknown. Very common in legal actions or to name unidentified dead bodies (yikes!) or patients in hospitals.

Placeholder name however, also have a funny side. They are used to name objects we can’t remember (or know) the name. Sure, thing works in most cases but there are wonderfully silly versions of thing, that I’d like to share with you.

Thingy – a more informal variation of thing. Usually comes accompanied by lots of gestures or perhaps pointing at the thing you just can’t remember the name.. It would probably go like this: “Can you pass that thingy, you know the clip thing that holds papers together…”

Not satisfied with thingy, people had to go the extra mile and create yet another variation for thing, the great, very used by me,

Thingymajigy – an even further informal variation of thing, it performs the same linguistic purpose in a sentence, simply replacing that thingy you just can’t remember the name… Possible use: “I read this yesterday on the thingymajigy, you know… the newspaper!”  

And last but definitely, definitely not least,

Whatchmacallit – (doesn’t that sound great?). Again, simply to replace the name of that thing, thingy, thingymajigy you just can’t remember the name… Something along the lines of… “I need one of those things, whatchamacallit, you know, the thing you use to caramelise sugar…” 

Hopefully after reading this blog, you will always have a word at hand to use when your memory fails you! 

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