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Widget

Q From Terrie Relf; a related question came from Christopher Key: I have a question about widget. In my family of part Celtic origin, it was used to refer to little ones who were cute and often annoying. I’ve come to understand that the word is also used to refer to a particular tool or a screw of some kind, although I’m not sure what it is.

A You are right to be puzzled, as am I by your explanation. The usual sense of widget is some small device or mechanical contraption not sufficiently important to be graced by a name of its own. The word seems to be a variation on gadget, perhaps influenced by whatsit or whoosit.

I’ve not come across any reference to small children, not even winsomely tiresome ones. Could it be that your family is confusing the word with gidget? Gidget was the small teenager heroine in a series of California surf films (the first from 1959) and two television series. Her nickname was invented as a blend of girl and midget.

A widget, on the other hand, is often a term for some small manufactured item, otherwise not particularised. It has long been used in business studies, and sometimes in advertisements, as a generic name for an item. It also turns up in computing as an example of a generic product, for example in tutorials explaining how to write and use databases, and also as an element of at least one operating system. In recent years in Britain it has become the name for a specific thing: a plastic device in the bottom of a can of beer that introduces nitrogen into the liquid to give it a creamy head, in order to make it look more like draught beer.

H G Wells invented a family called the Widgetts in Ann Veronica in 1909. It would be nice to think that this was the source of the word, but it looks — alas — like a coincidence, since the word’s debut is otherwise in America more than a decade later.

It appears in the play Beggar on Horseback, by George Kaufman and Marc Connelly, which was first performed in 1924. The play is a parable that warns of the perils of trading one’s artistic autonomy for filthy lucre. The character Neil McRae is a struggling young composer, engaged to the daughter of a rich but philistine businessman. In a nightmare sequence, he visualises what life would be like in a big bureaucratic business, in which ideas come from the Inspiration Department. His possible future father-in-law explains that his firm is in the widget business: “Yes, sir! I suppose I’m the biggest manufacturer in the world of overhead and underground aerial widgets”. The joke, of course, is that the young composer never finds out what these widget things really are.

Apart from those beer cans, we still don’t know for sure ...

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 22 Dec. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 22 December 2001.