The Joy of Indefinite Words: Is a Spillion More than a Metric Buttload?
How many iotas are in a bazillion? Is a jot more than a whit? How does a gazillion compare to a kabillion?
There are no easy answers to those ridiculous questions, which doesn’t stop people from using English’s many indefinite words. I have no idea how many indefinite words there are, but certainly there are gobs—perhaps even oodles, especially when you consider words for thingamajigs such as “thingumbob” and “whangydoodle.” Like euphemisms, nicknames, and slang in general, indefinite words are a testament to our collective creativity, which can never be contained by numbers or knowledge.
“Spillion”—coined in 2010 to express the enormity of the BP oil spill—is only the latest fanciful word to play on real numbers such as “million” and “billion.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces “zillion” back to a 1944 quote: “I love him a zillion dollars' worth.” “Bazillion” is at least five years older than “zillion,” while “jillion” and “gazillion” are first recorded in 1942 and 1978 respectively. ESPN’s Bill Simmons is a fan of “katrillion.” If you Google long enough, you’ll find kazillions, frabillions, and who-knows-what-else-illions. All of these words can be modified to describe the ultra-rich too, as in the bazillionaire and gazillionaire.
At the other end of the spectrum, puny amounts are represented by a whit, a jot, a smidge, a mite, and a scootch, as well as rarer, older amounts like a scraplet, a fractionlet, a smitch, and a tittle. Those words are moderately neato, but I say words for bigger amounts are more fun. I’ve long been a fan of “metric buttload,” a fantastically elastic term. I’ve spotted variations such as “metric monkeyload,” “metric diaper-load,” and “metric smurfload.” Who needs truckloads and boatloads when slang’s metric system is so pliable?
Amount is only part of the story of indefinite words, because even the handiest person sometimes can't tell a doojigger from a hickey-doodle. We all know contraptions, gizmos, gadgets, widgets, doodads, and whatchamacallits, but the lingo of indefinite objects runs deeper and weirder. “Doojigger” has been around since at least 1927, and it has plenty of cousins, including “doobob,” ”doodaddle,” “doodibble,” “doodinkus,” “dooflicker,” “dooflunky,” “doofunny,” “doogadget,” “doojumfunny,” “doowhacker,” and “doosenwhacker.” The Dictionary of American Regional English records all those words, and the similarly wonderful Historical Dictionary of American Slang shows “doo-whanger” in action, circa 1927: "Whoever fired that doo-whanger at him’s a poor shot." Those were banner years for coining and recording such words. In 1931, Louise Pound wrote about them in American Speech, bringing to light terms such as “diddenwhacker,” “fumadiddle,” “hoofenpoofer,” and “rigamajig.”
One of the coolest terms recorded by DARE is “ho-dad with a shufflin’ rod.” Seemingly as vague as the rest, this 1966-era expression has a more specific purpose: It's something you’re supposed to tell a child who asks "What are you making?" Hickeys are better known as marks of love than objects of bafflement, but the thingy-type meaning is older—at least as old as 1909, according to the OED. “Hickey” has inspired many variations such as the popular “doohickey” and the obscure “hickey-jigger” and “hickeymadoodle,” a word to make Ned Flanders proud. Speaking of The Simpsons, that “ma” in “hickeymadoodle” is the same one in “thingamajig” and Homer Simpson’s coinages “edumacation” and “saxamaphone,” conveying a "what the heck is this?" meaning. As I mentioned when writing about Futurama, the writers of that show have a particular love of indefinite words, coining “killamajig,” “neckamajigger,” “freezer-doodle,” and “future-jiggy.”
These words are just the tip of the whatsit-berg. The lexical banquet of the web has produced more than a smattering of creative, bonkers words, many playing on “thingamajig.” Some are specific, like “tupperware-thingy-majigger,” “blog-site-location-amajig,” “twittermajiggy,” and “frappawhatsit,” a nice spoof of the ever-expanding coffee lexicon. Others are inspired by pure wordlust. Even a licensed thingy-ologist would have trouble identifying a “thinga-longwordsomethingortheother-majiggy” or “thingy-majiggy-bobdoohicky-thang-thang.”
A curmudgeon might pooh-pooh a word like “thingy-majiggy-bobdoohicky-thang-thang,” pronouncing it useless and preposterous. I can’t argue with that, except with my favorite Taoist saying, Chuang Tzu’s “Everybody knows the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless.” By any measure, “thingy-majiggy-bobdoohicky-thang-thang” is a useless word, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world without it. Such vague yet strangely vivid words are virtuosic testimony to our endless creative potential. Even when we don’t have a smidge of a clue what a whimmydiddle might be, we just can’t get enough of these wordamajigs.