Relying on our modern vocabulary and technologically advanced world, when we think of the word gadget, we tend to picture all kinds of small electronic devices with varied functions. Yet the origin of the word takes us back to the 19th century; and it obviously didn’t originate to name an electronic device of any kind.
The first written record, to name the word, comes from 1886, from Robert Brown’s Spunyarn and spindrift: a sailor boy’s log of a voyage out and home in a china tea-clipper: “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 gadget…… ”
And it is exactly the first mention of the word in print, that leads to the origin of two theories. Where the first one gives the word gadget the meaning of a sailors’ slang word for any small mechanical thing or part of a ship, while the second one claims the word was used to name just any piece of mechanism, one can not recall the name of.
With the second one, officially proclaimed by the October 1918 issue of Notes and Queries, in an article entry on the word gadget, stating that: “……it has for years been a popular expression in the service for a tool or implement, the exact name of which is unknown or has for the moment been forgotten”.
And the etymology of the word is just as blurry as its initial meaning is, with one of the most plausible etymological suggestions that it originated from either the French gâchette, applied to various pieces of mechanism, or the French dialect word gagée, meaning ‘a small tool, instrument.’
By the 1920s, the word became synonymous to invention, as we see in Vivian Drake’s book Above the Battle, published in 1918, “gadget is the Flying Corps slang for invention! Some gadgets were good, some comic and some extraordinary.”
The term gismo or gizmo, used interchangeably with gadget, first appeared in print in a 1943 issue of The Times, defined as: “Gizmo—a term of universal significance, capable of meaning ‘gadget’, ‘stuff’, ‘thing’, ‘whozis’ or almost anything else the speaker wants it to”.
Where the second half of the 20th century saw both terms developing the meaning of small self-contained devices of high performance, usability and mobility.
In 1983, the animated television series Inspector Gadget introduced the iconic clumsy detective with various bionic gadgets built into his body. 2 years later the term gadget entered the context of software engineering. And nowadays, as we live in a world of gadgets, the word seems to be a kind of a universal term, applicable to just anything.