“Gadget”

The word was used as early as 1868, according to the OED, to refer to a piece of equipment used in glassmaking. Not long after that, nautical and Navy slang gave it another meaning. From an 1886 book: “Then the names of all the other things on board a ship! I don’t know half of them yet; even the sailors forget at times, and if the exact name of anything they want happens to slip from their memory, they call it a chicken-fixing, or a gadjet, or a gill-guy, or a timmey-noggy, or a wim-wom…”

It wasn’t until World War I that ”gadget” adopted the meaning (and spelling) we associate with it today—in the OED’s words, “a (small) mechanical or electronic device, esp. one regarded as ingenious or novel.” At first it was used in a specifically military context. Rudyard Kipling wrote in The New Army (1915): “They have installed decent cooking ranges and gas, and the men have already made themselves all sorts of handy little labour-saving gadgets.”

It quickly spread to other contexts. Correspondent H. Tapley-Soper wrote to Notes and Queries in 1918: “I have … frequently heard [‘gadget’] applied by motor-cycle friends to the collection of fitments to be seen on motor cycles. ‘His handle-bars are smothered in gadgets’ refers to such things as speedometers, mirrors, levers, badges, mascots, &c., attached to the steering handles.”

And it quickly spread to the United States. A 1919 New York Times article about a transatlantic flight noted, “It was no unusual sight to see [the pilot], tools in hand, busily fitting some ‘gadget’…”

Within ten years, Americans were using it more than Britons, according to Ngram Viewer:

That spike in the ‘30s and ‘40s is presumably what caused The New Yorker, under the editorship of William Shawn, to actually ban “gadget” from the magazine’s pages, along with a remarkable number of other words. Two editors at the magazine, John Bennet and Nancy Franklin, once composed a sentence to try to help them remember all of the things they had to eliminate or find replacements for: “Intrigued by the massive smarts of the balding, feisty, prestigious, workaholic tycoon, Tom Wolfe promptly spat on the quality photo above the urinal and tried to locate his gadget.” (They left out “gotten.”)

“Cushy”

I happened upon a 1918 letter to Notes and Queries in which the correspondent, Archibald Sparke, noted that “quite a large number of new words have come into common use during the War” and offered a list. Here’s a part of it:

I’ve already covered “scrounge,” but a few of the others struck me as being common in the U.S. I’ll take a look at them all in the coming weeks, starting with the “cushy.”

The OED tells us that it derives from words in Persian and Urdu that connote pleasure or convenience, and suggests that etymologically distinct “cushion” or “cushiony” may also have had an influence. The definition for the most common sense is: “Of a job, situation, etc.: undemanding, easy; requiring little or no effort; (later) spec. involving little effort, but ample or disproportionate rewards…”

The specifically military sense predates the Great War, as the OED has a brilliant 1895 quote from the Penny Illustrated Paper: “He told me that I had got into a ‘cushy’ (easy) troop.” And Green’s Dictionary of Slang gives a 1912 example of a now familiar formulation: “A lot of them have rare cushy jobs.”

The OED notes an interesting World War I sense of “cushy”: “Of a wound: serious enough to necessitate one’s withdrawal from active duty, but not life-threatening or likely to have permanent consequences, such as disability.” It provides this 1915 quote: “When you are in the trenches a cushy wound..seems the most desirable thing in the world.”

This 1918 New York Times article uses an interesting noun form in the headline:

“‘CUSHIES’ FOR THE FRONT

“British Agitation to Make Holders of “Soft Jobs” Do Guard Duty.

“Henry W. Benson, a wool merchant who arrived yesterday from London on his way to Sydney, Australla, sald that when he left England there was a strong agitation under way to have all the holders of ‘cushy jobs’ sent to the Continent to do guard duty and let the men who have done the fighting and endured the hardships of the war come home.”

The first example I’ve seen of an American using the term is Green’s citation from Budd Schulberg’s 1947 novel The Harder They Fall: “My job with Nick was like a jail, a comfortable, cushy jail.” The New York Times first used the expression “cushy job” in 1964; since then, it’s appeared in the paper 103 times.

And so it isn’t surprising that Ngram Viewer shows American use picking up in the 1970s, and surpassing British use in the ’90s:

Next: “wash-out.”

“Clobber”

Correspondent David Griggs sent from England a note saying “you may be interested” in an example of the word “clobbered” in the New York Times. He was clearly implying it was a NOOB, but the word — meaning “to badly beat or defeat” — didn’t strike my ears as such. I checked the Times archive and found that “clobbered” or “clobber” have been used in the paper 1,720 times since 1990, frequently in a sports context. (“

Google Books’s newly beefed-up Ngram Viewer told an interesting story:

Screen Shot 2020-07-22 at 2.13.46 PM

That is, more use in the U.S. from the ’40s through about 1970, then a big spike in Britain over the next twenty years or so — which may account for David Griggs’ sense of it as a British word — followed by a period of slightly greater U.S. use.

But then David sent along a couple of sources asserting that “clobber” originated in British R.A.F. slang. The Online Etymology Dictionary  dates it to 1941, but doesn’t give any citations or sources. And a Merriam-Webster article says, “Pilots of the British air force during the 1940s were supposedly the first to throw around the punchy verb ‘clobber” (emphasis added): again, no evidence.

The OED does offer some, though from 1944 rather than 1941. Its first citation is from the R.A.F. magazine Gen, which had the line “Did anyone clobber any?” (The “any” apparently referred to flying bombs.)

The next two citations are from American sources, the first, reflecting a move in meaning from bombing to beating, from a 1949 reference to the University of Michigan football team: “The Wolverines clobbered their opponents 42 to 3.” And the second comes from Max Shulman’s 1951 novel The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: “‘Poor loser!’ they kept yelling as they clobbered me.”

And on my own I found a 1946 use by an American writer, Percy Knauth: “Bayreuth was clobbered badly.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang adds some interesting bits to the story, starting with some lines from a poem in an 1894 issue of the Australian magazine Truth: “The larrikin / So full of sin, / has now no fear of getting clobbert.”

Then two citations that illuminate the word’s move to America.

From 1000 Destroyed, 1946, by Grover Cleveland Hall: “It didn’t appear the war was going to last long enough to clobber them.”

And from the 1948 novel Twelve O’Clock High: “‘Hit it?’ Savage asked. ‘Clobbered it, I think, sir.'”

Hall was a public relations officer for the 4th Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Force — which was headquartered at the former R.A.F. base at Debden, England, starting in 1942. And Twelve O’Clock High was modeled on activities of the 306th Bomb Group, based at another R.A.F. facility, at Thurleigh.

As David Griggs said to me in an email, “Interesting just when Ngram says ‘clobber’ took off in the US: the late 1940s; all those American servicemen returning from WW2 Europe…” Exactly. The remarkable thing is just how fast it took hold in the U.S. For reasons I won’t speculate on, “clobber” and America were made for each other.

Update: The comments to this post and some additional investigation revealed several additional points of interest. First, the slogan of the comic book character The Thing has been, at least since 1964, what you see in the image below.

TheThing

Second, I should have pointed out a second, apparently unrelated British use of “clobber,” as a slang term for clothing (dating from the 1870s) or equipment or gear (1890s). They’re still in use today but have not penetrated America.

And finally, “the clobber passages” is a term that refers to the six or seven biblical verses that have traditionally been used to support the idea that the Bible condemns homosexuality.