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Gimcrack

Pronounced /ˈdʒɪmkræk/Help with pronunciation

This word was in the news this month because a 1765 painting by George Stubbs, entitled Gimcrack on New Market Heath, featuring a famous racehorse, was sold for $35.79 million. Gimcrack was successful: he won 27 of his 36 races in a career that spanned 7 seasons and the Gimcrack Stakes at York was named after him.

His success and the immense price for the painting are at odds with the usual meaning of gimcrack, a useless ornament or something showy of little real worth.

As high-paying consumers of education, they do not want to graduate with a gimcrack qualification that does little to enhance their career prospects.

Daily Telegraph, 28 Jun. 2011.

Gimcrack is a member of a fine collection of disparaging words for such items that includes bauble, trinket, knick-knack, gewgaw, bric-a-brac, kickshaw and tchotchke.

Of these, tchotchke is from Polish via Yiddish. Kickshaw is a curious English transformation of the French quelque chose. Bric-a-brac is French, from the obsolete à bric et à brac, at random. Nobody knows where gewgaw comes from. We can trace gimcrack back to the Middle English gibecrake, but there the trail runs cold, though it has been suggested that it’s linked to the Old French giber to shake or kick (which might also be the origin of jib in the sense of a horse baulking).

Gimcrack started life to describe some kind of inlaid work in wood but later changed to mean a fanciful notion or mechanical contrivance. It became popular in the eighteenth century in the modern sense. It may seem a strange name to give a horse, but as its sire was called Cripple and Gimcrack was small, it may have been a witticism or an attempt at defensive magic by seeming to disparage something you wanted to succeed. If so, it worked.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Aug. 2011

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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: 6 August 2011.