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Recently, I had occasion to buy a scythe (as one does) and it came with some kind of doohickey with the highly technical name of “thingummyjig.”

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Just what is a thingummyjig and what secrets about language does it help reveal? As a name for all reasons, like the blank tile in a Scrabble game, thingummyjig acts as a placeholder or stand in word for when you just don’t know what to call something, along with its many variants, thing, thingo, thingy, thingummy, thingumabob and whatchamacallit (just to name a few). We seem to make liberal use of them in English when we need a convenient handle to lorem ipsum the heck out of a situation. Has a random corpse turned up you don’t know how to place? Then meet John or Jane Doe, Roe, or Poe, placeholder names for unknown identities used in the legal world (like in the famous court decision Roe v. Wade). For more information, you can write to whatshisface, Joe Bloggs from Main StreetAnywhere, USA, who can send you gizmos and widgets that will explain everything. There are even more formal words we can use, like apparatus or utensil, which don’t at first appear to be a way of describing something we don’t know how to describe, but are.

It’s not just English—all languages make use of these placeholders. In the French film “Un peu, beaucoup, aveuglément,” the two main characters are simply called Machin and Machine (the French masculine and feminine words for “machine” but also for unknown names, like Whosit and Whatsit). Japanese uses 誰々 (daredare), a reduplicated form of “who” while Italian might use “Coso” (from the word for “thing”) to refer to unknowns.

Placeholders are often said to be restricted to just names and nouns, and the majority of them are, but in casual speech sometimes you’ll hear examples of placeholders being used in other grammatical categories, such as verbs, complete with conjugations. “Did you see how whatshisname thingo’d the whatsit?” (Though to understand this sentence completely you’d have to have a bit more context). Other languages, such as Italian, may have placeholder verbs, like cosare (again, related to “thing”), so I guess the thing is, placeholders are very versatile no matter what part of language you need to replace.

But why are they so common and what are we actually doing when we use them? One reason of course is that stand ins can be very useful for demonstration or presentation purposes, when the real thing might be irrelevant, unknown, or identities have to be protected. We have other kinds of stand ins, for when we just can’t be bothered to refer to exactly what we mean, for example, pronouns like him and her and deictics like here and there, this and that, if you want to get vaguely specific about it.

At other times, placeholders may be handy for those peculiar moments when, for some reason, you can’t quite say the word you mean—you’re sure you know it, you can’t put your finger on it, yet somehow it’s on the tip of your tongue…

This seems pretty weird, because we often think of words as complete units. Either you know the word or you don’t. But say you’ve forgotten someone’s name. You haven’t really forgotten them completely, because you still might be able to remember salient facts such as what they look like or information about their background and how you met them, even as what they’re called escapes you.

Unlike not knowing a word, or forgetting a word entirely, some ghostly semblance of the word may linger in your mind. For all intents and purposes, you actually know the word, it’s just that something is preventing you from saying it. This is referred to, cleverly, as the “tip of the tongue” (TOT) phenomenon (or “tip of the fingers” in sign language), and for many is an obstacle to completing the lexical access and retrieval process when we use language. The ways that it can get resolved can tell us a lot about the hidden layers of language in our brains.

So what’s going on in the mental lexicon about how words are stored in our heads?

It varies, but on average most of us produce 2 to 4 words per second when speaking, which means before we even produce these words we have to have a way to retrieve these words from wherever and however they’re stored, along with all their meaning and syntactic information and other associated facts, superfast. Some researchers think the mental lexicon for the average literate adult holds from 50—100,000 words and that we make errors no more than once or twice per 1,000 words, which is astonishingly low considering how complex these mental computations really are. Before we reach the endpoint of articulating anything at all, we’ve already had to access and assemble our thoughts together into the right words, with the right semantics from a myriad of choices. All this is a remarkable mental achievement, and we do it so quickly, seamlessly, and naturally we almost don’t even have to think about it. But in a TOT state, everything seems perfect, until right at the very end, it no longer isn’t.

To varying degrees, this is similar to a type of anomia or anomic aphasia, when we have trouble finding the words we want but seem to know quite a lot about them otherwise. Although anomic aphasia can be caused by brain trauma such as strokes, TOT states are somewhat common and occur more often as people age. Those who suffer from severe anomic aphasia often find other solutions to get around the “tip of the tongue” problem, such as describing a person, place or object more fully, or using helpful placeholders, when those sounds and syllables just won’t come out of hiding.

Lise Abrams’ research into TOT states has shown how phonology is really the crux of the matter here. Words are not atomic units as is sometimes assumed. Lexical retrieval is made up of layers accessed in sequence, so that in forming our thoughts, we choose the right semantics and encode the syntax of what we want to say before we even begin to say it. The final layer is articulating a word’s phonology, but in a TOT state, that encoding breaks down, often when the word is rarely used or hasn’t be accessed recently. The “forgotten” word might suddenly pop back into your head because of something in your environment. But the question is: what would best help trigger your memory?

Abrams posits that if a tip of the tongue problem is just about access to the phonological layer, perhaps similar-sounding words can resolve the mental block. In her experiments, subjects were asked questions such as “What do you call goods that are traded illegally, i.e. smuggled goods?” (Answer: “contraband”) Subjects were then asked to review a list of words that could be phonologically similar or dissimilar and then asked the question again to see if the TOT state was resolved. Abrams found that when subjects were shown words beginning with the same first syllable as the TOT word, such as “contact” it seemed to help trigger subjects to remember the right word “contraband.” In some cases, the connection could be one step removed, as words like “motorcycle” compared to “helicopter” can help resolve a TOT state for the word “biopsy,” because of the associated term “bike.”

What’s curious is semantically-related words aren’t as helpful in resolving a TOT problem as you might expect. No matter how often you mention smuggled thingummyjigs to help recall “contraband,” it doesn’t work as well as just showing someone a word that begins with the same kind of sound, proving that this really is an issue of phonology and not of forgetting a word’s meaning. Abrams found that offering related words and phrases in the same grammatical category can actually decrease TOT resolution, as those words may compete with each other and get in the way of sparking off the right memory.

This becomes more of a problem as speakers get older, and on a social level those aging or older speakers can appear forgetful and incompetent in their speech, when they may really know the words they want to use. The issue really is one of a weakening of the phonological form from the word’s meaning.

On such occasions, is it any wonder that you might want to use a thingumabob to help lend a certain “je ne sais quoi” to proceedings?


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Psychological Science, Vol. 16, No. 11 (Nov., 2005), pp. 856-860
Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the Association for Psychological Science
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 98, No. 23 (Nov. 6, 2001), pp. 13464-13471
National Academy of Sciences
American Scientist, Vol. 96, No. 3 (MAY-JUNE 2008), pp. 234-239
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society