Thursday, September 10, 2015



Due to generations of countless variables, I am a member of a group identified as suburban Americans. Most members of our loosely defined group occasionally look around ourselves & realize we are surrounded by more belongings than we need. The next couple of posts are dedicated to words we use to define our stuff.

The Old French word estoffe referred to quilted material, furniture or provisions. It made its way into English as stuff in the 1300s, meaning quilted material worn under chain mail. In the 1400s stuff also began to mean material for working with in various trades. This meaning broadened by the 1500s to the modern meaning, matter of an unspecified nature. Also in the 1500s, the closely related word stuffing gained two meanings: material for filling cushions, & seasoned mixture used to stuff fowls before cooking.

The literal sense of the Old French word junc referred to rushes or reeds, while the figurative sense meant of little value. English sailors of the 1300s re-spelled the word junke & used it to label both old cable or rope, & worthless stuff. The word maintained its nautical connection in the 1800s & referred to old refuse from boats & ships, which soon broadened to mean old, discarded items of any kind. The term junk mail was born in 1954, junk art showed up in 1966, & 1971 brought us the term junk food. The word junkie, meaning drug addict, came to us in 1923. The Chinese sailing ship type of junk comes from an entirely different root, the Malay word jong (Iarge ship), which made its way to English through Portuguese.

Claptrap is a theater term from the 1730s. Made up of clap & trap, it initially defined any gimmick or trick inserted for the sole purpose of catching applause. By 1819 claptrap morphed into meaning cheap or showy language, which led to its modern meanings, either pretentious, insincere language, or rubbish or unnecessary belongings.

In the 1570s the word knick-knack was born, a reduplication of the word knack, which came to English in the 1300s meaning a deception, trick or device. By the 1700s, knick-knack picked up the meaning toy, and from there it morphed into our modern meaning, a cheap ornament or unnecessary decorative item.

I find it intriguingly honest that the words knick-knack & claptrap both began as some sort of deception, but now refer to the unnecessary things with which we surround ourselves. How many of us deceive ourselves into believing we need these things?

We derived the word tchotchke (or chachkie) from a Yiddish word meaning trinket. It came to English in 1964. As much as I enjoy The Urban Dictionary, I typically don’t cite crowdsourced sources. In this case, though, the Urban Dictionary’s definition of tchotchke is too good to pass up: …just look around your house or someone else's and whatever you see that a burgler (sic) wouldn't steal is probably Tchotchke.”  

Good readers, I’m hoping some etymological tchotchke above inspires you to make a comment.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Wordnik, Etymonline, Merriam Webster, The Urban Dictionary, & the OED.


  1. I, too, find myself oppressed by stuff. I love the Urban Dictionary's definition of tchotchkes! I have to admit a fondness for them.

    The origin of claptrap is fascinating. It makes perfect sense. I suppose someday "clickbait" will mean the same thing.

  2. Hi Anne, thanks for coming by again. What fascinated me about claptrap's modern definitions was that I've never heard anyone use claptrap to refer to insincere or pretentious language. Makes me wonder about geographic usage.

  3. Stuff and junk have made their intriguing way through centuries of etymology and into my house!

  4. WOW. Maybe you've discovered etymology's metaphoric equivalent of a singularity, the theoretical back side of a black hole, where all the stuff that falls into the black hole mysteriously shows up!