We have so many words for things we don’t have words for. Thingamabob. Doodad. Whatsit. Doohickey. Thingy, if you’re not one for bells and whistles. Or you could be on the opposite end of the spectrum like me, and invent your own chimerical abominations whenever a situation calls for a “whatchamawhozit”. They’re called “placeholder words”, and other languages have them too (Wikipedia’s list of placeholder words by language is every bit as entertaining as you’d expect). Some, like English’s, are nonsense words that verge on the ridiculous — to the extent that a bunch of syllables mashed together can stand in for a placeholder word in a pinch — while others aim for at least some semblance of meaning, but there’s a common factor shared across almost all languages: the words are often silly, and a surprising number are vulgar. It’s as if we’re all mocking something that is a universal linguistic phenomenon.
Language, while powerful and (when it feels like it) beautiful, is incomplete. No language has words for everything. English has no word for “the day after tomorrow”; Polish does, but it has no word for “toes”. So sometimes we just have to make do with the words we have — but those words aren’t always good enough. In a twist of self-awareness, English has a word for when there isn’t a word for something: lacuna (also known less elegantly as a “lexical gap”). It describes the situation where a word should exist and simply doesn’t. For example, a child who loses their parents is an orphan, but there’s no word for a parent who loses their child. It’s an inconsistency born of linguistic happenstance. But sometimes a word doesn’t exist because there’s no reason for it to — or maybe it exists anyway, and does so quietly enough that you don’t even know it’s there. (Like “aglets” for the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces… or me at most social gatherings.) It’s in these cases that placeholder words take the linguistic playing field. You might call it laziness, or an unwillingness to remember a specific word — and sometimes it is — but sometimes using these words really is the best way we can describe things. There isn’t a more suitable name for it — it’s just a thingamajig. A whatchamacallit. A curwhibble.
I still have many questions, though: where do we draw the line between a lacuna and a curwhibble? What dictates whether something is deserving of its own word or not? Is a lacuna a type of curwhibble, albeit a more dignified one? For that matter, what distinguishes a curwhibble from a thingamajig or a doodad? Why does English need so many distinct placeholders, and why did poor curwhibble fall into obscurity while the others have persisted?
I suppose the takeaway here is that even the semantics of words that don’t exist are nuanced. Language is weird.