Have you ever wondered where some of our lexicon’s more unusual terms and expressions originated?  Recently I overheard someone use a word my Mother (God rest her soul) uttered just about every day while I was growing up.  The word was whatchamacallit, as in “Butch, go in the other room and bring me the whatchamacallit.”

Ah yes, a whatchamacallit, a very useful term used to describe just about any small household object.  Etymologists believe whatchamacallit comes to us from the ancient Greek “thingamajig,” (or if you live in Singletree, a “thingamabob,”) which later evolved into the word “gizmo.”

But then what are gizmos?  Well, gizmos fall into the general category of mechanical or electrical devices that are usually more complicated than necessary, making a gizmo a gadget of uncertain nomenclature and mysterious functionality that can be found in automobile engines, garages and very dark basements.

If a gizmo is a type of gadget, then what’s a gadget?  Well a gadget is 19th century sailor slang for any small mechanical thing or part of a ship for which they lacked or forgot the name.

Now I don’t know about you, but I found gadget a rather cute term so I decided to see if it precipitated the word Gidget “capitalized.)  Well, Gidget has nothing to do tih gadget or anything else mechanical.  As the story goes, Gidget was the nickname given to Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, a diminutive Jewish girl (she was 5’ 1”) who was the first official beach bunny admitted to Malibu’s surfing scene during the mid-fifties.

When Kathy was 15-years old she was lured to Malibu by the original surfer crown—and it was there that Terry “Tubesteak” Tracy, a famous surfer of the era, melded the words ‘girl’ and ‘midget’ to form “Gidget and gave the young miss the nickname that launced a string of movies starring Sandra Dee, as well as a TV series.

The English language is rife with amusing words and phrases, so I thought that just for the fun of it I would use today’s commentary to explore the origins of some of the words and phrases we use and take for granted everyday.

Most of us are familiar with the term “Gandy Dancer” a name found on many ski trails across North America, including one of my favorites right here on Vail Mountain.  According to legend, a “gandy dancer” was an itinerant laborer who worked on American railroads during the 1800s.  While not one-hundred percent certain, it’s been speculated that the term derived from the Gandy Shovel Company of Chicago, the manufacturer of hand tools known as “gandy” to lever railroad tracks into position.

An unrelated, but nevertheless interesting word I’ve often wondered about is “cakewalk.”  Cake has been a synonym for something good or easy since ancient Egypt, when mummies were interred with cakes and ale; in fact, “cakes and ale” remains shorthand for “the good life” in parts of Britain to this day.

But cake was also very popular in America and was frequently served as a prize to the winner of all sorts of competitions, giving rise to the 19th century expression “take the cake.”  Originally simply meaning, “to win,” “take the cake” has now permutated into sarcasm or something extraordinarily ironic, such as, “Bill Gates filing for unemployment takes the cake.”

But back to cakewalk—this word originated with a contest made popular in America’s Black community during the 19th century where couples competed strolling arm in arm, with the prize, a cake, being awarded to the most graceful and stylish duo.

However, the modern use of “cakewalk” actually derived from the boxing ring of all places, where an easy victory over an outclassed opponent was likened to a refined “cakewalk” compared to the normally brutal nature of boxing matches.  By the late 1800s however, cakewalk graduated from the boxing ring and acquired its general meaning of “an effortless victory.”

Incidentally, the expression “piece of cake,” meaning something easily accomplished, has only been traced back to the 1940s, and has no apparent connection with “cakewalk.”

But my all-time favorite ‘curious’ expression is the “white elephant,” which led me to query how “white elephant parties” first came into existence.  The answer to that question comes to us from Thailand where your run-of-the mill grey elephants are still used as beasts of burden but white elephants (yes they do exist) are given special treatment due to their extreme uncommonness.

As the legend goes, white elephants were so venerated in the former Siam that when one was found it automatically became the property of the King, making it was a serious crime to ride, beat, neglect or kill one.

Since elephants are not exactly house pets, keeping such a beast is usually a ruinously expensive proposition unless you can generate income using the animal for labor or transportation.  The King realizing that the special status of his white elephants coupled with their appetites gave him a handy weapon against his foes.

Anyone who displeased his majesty was given a white elephant as a royal gift, and within months, unable to do anything with it apart from feeding it, the recipient was invariably financially ruined.  Thus “white elephant” came to mean an object for which one has no use, and which may even represent a substantial financial drain, but which is difficult or impossible to get rid of.

While the story about the King of Siam is almost certainly apocryphal, it nevertheless did give rise to the term “white elephant”—so now you know.  By the way, does anyone know where the expression “Dressed to the nines” came from?

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