Word of the Day: Gimcrack

Word of the Day

Today’s word of the day, thanks to A Dictionary of the Language of Shakespeare by Swynfen Jervis (John Russell Smith, 1868, p. 143) is gimcrack. A gimcrack is, according to www.dictionary.com, “a showy, useless trifle; gewgaw.” The word can also be used as an adjective, though that usage is less common. According to www.etymonline.com, the word can also be spelled “jimcrack, ‘trifle, knick-knack,’ by c. 1820, earlier ‘mechanical contrivance’ (1630s), originally ‘showy person’ (1610s), of uncertain origin. Perhaps an alteration of Middle English gibecrake, the name of some kind of ornament on wooden furniture (mid-14c.), which is perhaps from Old French giber ‘to rattle, shake’ + some special sense of Middle English crak ‘sharp noise, crack.’ In 18c.-19c. gimcrack also could mean ‘person who has a turn for mechanical contrivances.’”

According to www.finedictionary.com, there is an example of the use of the noun in the play The Coronation, a comedy ascribed early on to Beaumont and Fletcher though more likely to have been written by James Shirley, and first printed in 1640: “There is gimcracks in’t, the Queen is wise Above her years.” But even earlier than that, in Henry VI, Part 1, believed to have been written around 1591, Shakespeare has Reignier, the Duke of Anjou, say,

I think, by some odd gimmors or device
Their arms are set like clocks, stiff to strike on;
Else ne’er could they hold out so as they do.
By my consent, we’ll even let them alone. (1.2)

On this date in 1899, Alfred Blalock was born in Culloden, Georgia. Blalock was a bit of a prodigy. He entered the University of Georgia as a sophomore at the age of 15 and graduated when he was just 19. But he wasn’t a nerd. He played golf and tennis and was involved in the school’s social life—a well-rounded individual. He then entered Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he finished at in 1922. In 1930, at Vanderbilt University, he hired a black man named Vivien Thomas as his lab assistant. Although listed as a janitor, Thomas became a valuable partner in Blalock’s work.

In 1941, Johns Hopkins invited Blalock to return and become the head of surgery. He accepted, and insisted that Thomas join him there. While there, Blalock and Thomas developed a shunt to bypass the aorta when the aorta was congenitally too narrow (called coarctation of the aorta). Dr. Helen Taussig then brought to Blalock the problem of “blue babies,” babies who suffered from a lack of oxygen due to congenital heart defects. In part because of the development of the shunt, Blalock won numerous awards, and he and Thomas have been the focus of two award-winning films.

Also born on this date, this time in 1951, was Dean Kamen. Kamen was born in New York, the son of a comics illustrator. He attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute, but he dropped out before he could graduate. But while he was at school, he worked on an infusion pump for people with diabetes.

But the thing Kamen is most famous for is the invention of “an electric, self-balancing human transporter with a computer-controlled gyroscopic stabilization and control system” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dean_Kamen). This device, balanced on two wheels and controlled by shifts in the rider’s body weight, is called the Segway. The Segway was meant to revolutionize human transportation, but it has not really gotten past the novelty stage.

We are a society driven by new inventions. Some of the richest people in America got that way by inventing something that other people thought worth spending money on. Some of those inventions had a profound influence on life in America and the world, like Alfred Blalocks contributions to surgery, and especially child surgery. Others were things that were just gimcracks.

The image is of Dean Kamen on the Segway. And while it is a gimcrack, I would not mind at all were one of my readers to make it a gift to me.

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