WHERE EVERYTHING IS A THINGUMMY.

In reading Life: A User’s Manual, my wife and I have found that the reward for making your way through Part One’s bewildering descriptions and brief references to the lives of the inhabitants of the apartment building which is the focus of the book is that in Part Two you start getting longer and more involving stories; one of these is about Marcel Appenzzell, a young would-be anthropologist who studied with Malinowski and “resolved to share the life of the tribe he would study so completely as to merge himself into it.” He goes to Sumatra in search of “a mysterious people whom the Malays called the Anadalams, or Orang-Kubus, or just Kubus.” After many travails he manages to spend some time with these people, and later reports on their language, which is linguistically implausible to the point of impossibility but has a Borgesian flair:

As for their language, it was quite close to the coastal tongues, and Appenzzell could understand it without major difficulty. What struck him especially was that they used a very restricted vocabulary, no larger than a few dozen words, and he wondered if the Kubus, in the image of their distant neighbours the Papuans, didn’t voluntarily impoverish their vocabulary, deleting words each time a death occurred in the village. One consequence of this demise was that the same word came to refer to an ever-increasing number of objects. Thus the Malay word for “hunting”, Pekee, meant indifferently to hunt, to walk, to carry, spear, gazelle, antelope, peccary, my’am — a type of very hot spice used lavishly in meat dishes — as well as forest, tomorrow, dawn, etc. Similarly Sinuya, a word which Appenzzell put alongside the Malay usi, “banana”, and nuya, “coconut”, meant to eat, meal, soup, gourd, spatula, plait, evening, house, pot, fire, silex (the Kubus made fire by rubbing two flints), fibula, comb, hair, hoja’ (a hair-dye made from coconut milk mixed with various soils and plants), etc. Of all the characteristics of the Kubus, these linguistic habits are the best known, because Appenzzell described them in detail in a long letter to the Swedish philologist Hambo Taskerson, whom he’d known in Vienna, and who was working at that time in Copenhagen, with Hjelmslev and Brøndal. He pointed out in an aside that these characteristics could perfectly well apply to a Western carpenter using tools with precise names — gauge, tonguing plane, moulding plane, jointer, mortise, jack plane, rabbet, etc. — but asking his apprentice to pass them to him by saying just: “Gimme the thingummy”.

“Hjelmslev and Brøndal” are the well-known linguists Louis Hjelmslev (1899-1965) and Viggo Brøndal (1887-1942), but Hambo Taskerson seems to be an invention. There is a Kubu people, but I have no idea to what extent Perec’s description matches what they were like 70 years ago. I’m not going to go to the trouble of transcribing the original French of the passage, but you can see it here (the blockquoted paragraph at the bottom of p. 112); the final “Gimme the thingummy” is “passe-moi le machin.”

Comments

  1. the Malay word for “hunting”, Pekee, meant indifferently to hunt, to walk, to carry, spear, gazelle, antelope, peccary, my’am — a type of very hot spice used lavishly in meat dishes — as well as forest, tomorrow, dawn, etc.
    I love an author who can just string together a bunch of nouns with commas, and have it sound so lovely.
    “Thingumy” is the name of a character in Finn Family Moomintroll, no idea what his name is in Finnish though.

  2. joseph palmer says:

    People from the Jeolla-do region of Korea are famous for using the word “koshigee” in place of all manner of nouns and even verbs.
    I wonder therefore if, along the same lines, more specific terms exist but that for whatever reason it is culturally appropriate to be as vague as possible.

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    Appenzeller (so spelled, with one “z”) is the name of a Swiss cow’s-milk cheese. And is “Hambo Taskerson” Otto Jespersen, or am I reaching?

  4. “Pekee” is not the Malay word for “hunt”… it’s “buru”. In fact, “pekee” to me sounds like “pergi”, which means “to walk, to go”.

  5. A.J.P. Crown says:

    … a Western carpenter using tools with precise names — gauge, tonguing plane, moulding plane, jointer, mortise, jack plane, rabbet, etc. — but asking his apprentice to pass them to him by saying just: “Gimme the thingummy”.
    For one thing, a mortise and a rabbet (known nowadays, when it’s exposed, as a ‘reveal’) are not tools, they are details used in wood construction. For another, you could not in any case ‘hand’ someone a mortise because a mortise is an enclosed volume of space, not a thing. For a third, most of the tools mentioned haven’t been used professionally by jobbing carpenters since power tools took over, probably in the nineteen-seventies. The premise, that a carpenter usually says ‘gimme me the thingummy’, has never happened in my presence and I’ve spent an awful lot of time around carpenters. Probably the translator was thinking of what he or she would say. Siganus Sutor is an expert in wood joints in both languages.

  6. A.J.P. Crown says:

    A carpenter, were he or she still using a jack plane, would be quite likely to say ‘Give me the plane’, or ‘Give me that’. That’s a usage (omitting adjectives or using pronouns) that is more in keeping with the rest of society. In films a surgeon barks ‘Scalpel’, he or she doesn’t say ‘Gimme the thingummy’.

  7. Preachy Preach says:

    There’s the apocryphal story (which may or may not make it past spam filters) about the mechanic in the North African campaign shouting out “the fucking fucker’s fucked!”, and it being widely understood that he’d managed to strip yet another screw.

  8. Gavagai.

  9. When I see Appenzzell, I think “why two z’s?” And also I think Gruyere, Emmental, and fondue (shared an apartment with a Swiss guy many years ago). And Kirschwasser.

  10. ToussianMuso says:

    I have been thinking that there are two contrasting forms of lexical richness in languages. Some have an expansive lexicon with many near-synonyms, allowing one to define one’s meaning with precision and creativity (my favorite feature of English), whereas others have words with broad semantic ranges and hence a great amount of meaning contained in a single utterance. This language, whether in reality or in creative license, sounds like an extreme example of the latter. Greek also comes to mind, and Haitian Creole offers some fun semantic and syntactic ambiguity in the same vein.

  11. most of the tools mentioned haven’t been used professionally by jobbing carpenters since power tools took over, probably in the nineteen-seventies.
    The book is from the nineteen-seventies. As to the tool (or non-tool) names, I know nothing; perhaps the translator will drop by again.

  12. Jeremy Osner: “Thingumy” is the name of a character in Finn Family Moomintroll, no idea what his name is in Finnish though.
    Although Tove Jansson, the author of the Moomintroll stories was Finnish, she belonged to the substantial Swedish-speaking minority, and so the books were written in Swedish. Wikipedia has a list of characters which gives the original Swedish names. “Thingumy and Bob” are “Tofslan och Vifslan”. The article also notes that they speak a strange language with “-slan” appended to the ends of some words in the Swedish original. Interestingly, in the English translation this is represented by having them speak in spoonerisms.

  13. So, imagine a language with only one verb, meaning “do”, only one preposition, meaning.. uhh.. “preposition”?, no nouns (only pronouns), no adjectives, and the only productive class of words left is adverbs.
    It’s better documented than the language of the Kubus, but even less likely to be real.
    It’s called Shigudo, from Speculative Grammarian.

  14. A.J.P. Crown says:

    ‘perhaps the translator will drop by again’
    Yeah, how do they know? Do all translators always read Language Hat, or do translators develop antennæ to alert them when their work’s being talked about?

  15. The histories of the words [machine] and [engine] in the various European languages are fascinating. They were both derived from words meaning “trick”, “trap”, etc., and often weapons: cf. “machinations”, “ingenuity”. The Chinese graph ji which is a component of the names of many mechanical devices has a similiar origin.
    If I’m not mistaken words originally meaning “trigger”, as in a crossbow, whereby a large amount of stored energy is released suddenly by a tiny movement of the finger.

  16. Widget. A word for a generic manufactured item back in the 90′s that was more recently appropriated to name a very specific item in the blog sidebar.

  17. John Atkinson says:

    Trey: The two Kubu dialects (Western and Eastern Jambi Kubu) are at least as well documented as Shigudo:
    Anderbeck, Karl Ronald. 2008. Malay dialects of the Batanghari river basin (Jambi, Sumatra).‭ SIL e-Books, 6. S.l.: SIL International. 173 p. http://www.sil.org/silepubs/abstract.asp?id=50415

  18. Nijma, widget was earlier (in the 1980s?) appropriated for a specific item in Guinness cans that allows the stout to pour with a good head of nitrogen bubbles.

  19. rootlesscosmo says:

    I can attest that “widget” was the generic term for “article of manufacture” in law school Contracts courses in the 1960′s, and probably much earlier.

  20. Trey, that’s wonderful—thanks very much!

  21. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Rootless, I thought you were a professional train driver. Are you also an amateur lawyer?

  22. mollymooly says:

    OED has generic “widget” attested in 1931 and computer “widget” from 1987. Wiki says the Guinness widget launched in March 1989. OED gives the etymology “Perh. alteration of GADGET.” I surmise influence from “whatsit”.
    I’ve never heard of the Moomins, but the language with the smurfiest smorphology is Smurfish.

  23. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I thought ‘widget’ was something invented by Roald Dahl after the war, but maybe it was something else, like dohickey.

  24. How can a ‘computer “widget” from 1987′ be possible? There weren’t even blogs back then. Just dial-up modems where you put the telephone in a cushioned modem contraption and could play dungeons and dragons where the teletype would ask you “kill the dwarf with what? With your bare hands?” And if you typed “yes” it would come back with the message “dwarf dead” on the teletype. There were CRT’s back then, but with the same slow speed (maybe 2400 baud max, as opposed to 300 for teletypes). Graphics was an esoteric specialty limited to hospital type imaging.
    Must have been a hardware widget in the manufacturing sense and not a software widget for containing sidebar blogrolls, comments, archives, and such.

  25. mollymooly says:

    DRAFT ADDITIONS NOVEMBER 2003
    widget, n.
    * Computing. A visual symbol on a computer screen; a graphical device in a graphical user interface; the software and data involved when the operations represented by such a device are invoked, esp. regarded as jointly constituting a tool.
    1987 Nifty Little X Hacks Wanted in comp.windows.x (Usenet newsgroup) 2 Aug., The sort of things I want are akin to desk accessories on the Macintosh, little useful programs that can be called from the menu or (ideally) from a widget or icon.

  26. marie-lucie says:

    “thingummy” as a translation of machin
    un machin in France is much, much more common than “thingummy” or “thingamajig” or “thingy” in North America. There is no English translation which is as common in speech or as general in meaning: “widget” refers to some kind of tool or implement, but machin has a wider and vaguer meaning. For instance, you would not refer to a piece of furniture as a “widget”, but you could refer to, say, a wardrobe as un grand machin. You would not refer to a person, or call them, as “Thingummy”, but in French you can address someone (slangily) as Machin or Machine (not recommended with total strangers in polite company), or refer to those people as les Machin “the So-and-So’s” if you don’t know or remember their name (this implies also that you don’t really care what their real name is).

  27. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I was at school with a boy called Machin. He was a bit of a thingy.

  28. A.J.P. Crown says:

    It was, of course, ‘gremlin’ that I was thinking of in connection to Roald Dahl, not ‘widget’. Silly me.

  29. “Hambo Taskerson”
    In Swedish
    Hambo is a folk dance
    Task is slang for penis, bad things

  30. komfo,amonan says:

    A piece of trivia that has stayed with me for 25 years is that Appenzell Ausserrhoden, a canton of Switzerland, first allowed women to vote in canton-wide elections in 1989.

  31. komfo,amonan says:

    Maybe 20 years.

  32. There is an early cinematographer called Alfred Machin (he was in charge of the first film studios in Belgium). Before I knew better (and actually went to see some of his films at the film museum), I thought this was a made-up name.

  33. Women’s suffrage was forced on Appenzell Innerrhoden in 1990 by those bozos inside the Bern beltway.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    Robert Barnard’s mystery Death of a literary widow (= Posthumous Papers, 1979) features a writer known as Walter Machin. The story takes place in Lancashire.

  35. A.J.P. Crown says:

    No, it’s a better story with 25.
    My daughter was given the impression at school that Switzerland is an especially democratic country because they have referenda. Do they actually have the internet in Switzerland? There are never any Swiss here, or we’d be able to taunt them about their form of government.

  36. A.J.P. Crown says:

    There are apparently people who sit around discussing Machins.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Gentle kooks! And they give the English pronunciation, MAY-chin, which I was not sure of when I read the novel.

  38. A.J.P. Crown says:

    There’s also a conservatory manufacturer called Machin. I think they’re quite expensive.

  39. DRAFT ADDITIONS NOVEMBER 2003
    widget, n.
    * Computing. A visual symbol on a computer screen; a graphical device in a graphical user
    interface; the software and data involved when the operations represented by such a device are invoked, esp. regarded as jointly constituting a tool.
    1987 Nifty Little X Hacks Wanted in comp.windows.x (Usenet newsgroup) 2 Aug., The sort of things I want are akin to desk accessories on the Macintosh, little useful programs that can be called from the menu or (ideally) from a widget or icon.

    Widgets are not the same as icons. As least not now. They are containers for information one wants to appear in the sidebar. I notice the word “icon” appears in the same entry but I don’t remember icons back in the 80′s either. Computers didn’t have a whole lot of memory back in those days–aren’t visuals pretty memory intensive? The entry seems to be talking about things to design for the future. The words were retained, but once the tools (widgets and icons) were designed they looked a little different.

  40. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Henry Machin is the hero of The Card, by Arnold Bennett. There are other more recent fictitious Machins. One is the main character in the Sixties’ English film ‘This Sporting Life’, about a professional Rugby League player in working-class Yorkshire. It has such realistic depictions of mud and scrum violence that it put me off wanting to visit Yorkshire. When I was forced to, I found out that it is in fact a virtual paradise, a vestige of rural England.
    There’s another male Machin, I think in recent fiction, but I can’t remember where …

  41. “the fucking fucker’s fucked!”
    I heard this exclaimed by an irascible Scottish reporter (“irascible” is probably pleonastic there) called Roddy around 1979 in a newspaper office in Welwyn Garden City as he threw his jammed typewriter across the office …

  42. Oh, and
    “(the Kubus made fire by rubbing two flints)”
    ….no they don’t because rubbing flints together is not how you make fire. You rub sticks together or you strike flints for a spark.

  43. …the mechanic in the North African campaign shouting out “the fucking fucker’s fucked!”, and it being widely understood that he’d managed to strip yet another screw.
    Sorry, Preachy Preach but surely your (apocryphal?) North African annecdote is a (or nearly a) verbatim quote from the mechanic in the delightful movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. Perhaps that is where you got it and time has played a bit of a trick on the old memory. But, then, if you have yet to see the movie, do!

  44. Preachy Preach says:

    I personally suspect independent invention, meself. The phrase must be like, um, calculus. People keep on coming up with it and then sticking it in a drawer for twenty years. Maybe that’s not quite the right analogy.

  45. David Marjanović says:

    My daughter was given the impression at school that Switzerland is an especially democratic country because they have referenda.

    And exactly this is the case. Appenzell-Innerrhoden, you see, is insanely conservative, and this attitude is precisely represented in the politics there.

    Do they actually have the internet in Switzerland?

    That probably depends on the canton or half-canton. I’m not sure about Appenzell-Innerrhoden.
    (Appenzell-Außerrhoden, though, probably has it. Hmmmm. And it may not even be conservative enough to still spell itself with ß, though someone will have to check.)

  46. Kenneth Rexroth passed through Switzerland at some point and described the people as dreadfully stodgy: “Kansas stacked vertically”.

  47. Kenneth Rexroth passed through Switzerland at some point and described the people as dreadfully stodgy: “Kansas stacked vertically”.

  48. Nijma, the original Mac came out in 1984, but WIMPy (windows, icons, menus, pointing device) computers have been around since at least 1973, when Xerox PARC (the research labs) first built the Alto workstation.
    Indeed, “widget” is a technical term in X-Windows (the GUI mechanism, as opposed to policy, on Unix-style boxen) referring to user interface components: buttons, drop-down lists, menus and menu bars, text boxes, scrollbars, tree views, etc.
    “If the designers of X-Windows built cars, there would be no fewer than five steering wheels hidden about the cockpit, none of which followed the same principles — but you’d be able to shift gears with your car stereo. Useful feature, that.” –Marcus J. Ranum

  49. It was destined never to take off, by sheer weight of palindromy: CRAP XeroX PARC. (Data? A tad.)

  50. David Marjanović says:

    “Kansas stacked vertically”.

    :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D

    Unix-style boxen

    Um… was that deliberate? Is it an in-joke?

  51. It is common computer-geek usage (an offshoot of Tolkien’s “elven,” if I am not mistaken).

  52. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I’d like a half-canton of appenzell, please. No ice.

  53. mollymooly says:

    an offshoot of Tolkien’s “elven,” if I am not mistaken

    you are mistaken; it’s a deliberate overgeneralization of “ox”>”oxen”. Similarly “Unix”>”Unices”: Imperial Roman operating systems were 3rd declension.

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