Placeholders in Writing

Placeholders in Writing

Similar to a filler word, a placeholder is a word (such as whatchamacallit) used by speakers to signal that they don't know or can't remember a more precise word for something. Also known as a kadigan, tongue-tipper, and dummy noun.

Examples and Observations

  • "You need something to sell. Now this could be anything. It could be a thingamajig. Or a whosi-whatsi. Or pulls out a Watchamacallit candy bar from his pocket a Whatchamacallit."
    (Steve Carell as Michael Scott in "Business Office," The Office)
  • "Work, the what's-its-name of the thingummy and the thing-um-a-bob of the what d'you-call-it."
    (P.G. Wodehouse, Psmith, Journalist, 1915)
  • "I have unspiked the sliding doors at the far end of the barn, so that the greatly increased flow of visitors can move past the whatchamacallit without eddies and backwash. In one end they go, and out the other." (Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard. Delacorte Press, 1987)
  • "It will do magic,Believe it or not,Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.Now 'Salagadoola' means'A-Menchika-boola-roo,'But the thingamabobThat does the jobIs 'Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.'"
    (Al Hoffman, Mack David, and Jerry Livingston, "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo." Cinderella, 1950)


"doodad n (Variations: do-dad or do-funny or doofunny or do-hickey or doohickey or do-hinky or doohinky or do-jigger or doojigger or doowhangam or do-whistle or doowhistle or do-willie or doowillie) Any unspecified or unspecifiable thing: something one does not know the name of or does not wish to name." (Barbara Ann Kipfer and Robert L. Chapman, American Slang, 4th ed. Collins Reference, 2008)


"Placeholders… have little or no semantic meaning and should rather be interpreted pragmatically. The placeholder words that Channell discusses… are thing, thingummy (with the variants thingummyjig and thingummybob), whatsisname, whatnot, whosit, and whatsit… Incidentally, they are all defined as slang in Cassell's Dictionary of Slang (2000)…

"The situation where the next dialogue occurs reveals that Fanny does not know the name of the boy who was laughing with Achil and uses thingie as a placeholder:

Fanny: And I walked off and like I just walked away and Achil and thingy were laughing at, you know, just not at me at how how crap
Kate: Yeah.
Fanny: had been and how I had to go away.
(142304: 13-215)

Thingamajig occurs four times with reference to an object and twice with reference to a person. In (107) we meet 14-year-old Carola and Semantha… from Hackney:

Carola: Can I borrow your thingamajig?
Semantha: I don't know what thingamajig it is.

Semantha's reaction shows that there is no doubt that thingamajig belongs to the category of vague words. It obviously refers to an object that Carola would like to borrow, but Semantha apparently has no idea of what she is referring to." (Anna-Brita Stenström et al., Trends in Teenage Talk: Corpus Compilation, Analysis, and Findings. John Benjamins, 2002)

Douglas Adams on the Placeholder in "Do-Re-Mi"

"One particularly niggling piece of Unfinished Business, it occurred to me the other day in the middle of a singing session with my five-year-old daughter, is the lyrics to 'Do-Re-Mi,' from The Sound of Music

"Each line of the lyric takes the names of a note from the sol-fa scale, and gives it meaning: 'Do (doe), a deer, a female deer; Re (ray), a drop of golden sun,' etc. All well and good so far. 'Mi (me), a name I call myself; Fa (far), a long, long way to run.' Fine. I'm not saying this is Keats, exactly, but it's a perfectly good conceit and it's working consistently. And here we go into the home stretch. 'So (sew), a needle pulling thread.' Yes, good. 'La, a note to follow so… ' What? Excuse me? 'La, a note to follow so… ' What kind of lame excuse for a line is that?
“Well, it's obvious what kind of line it is. It's a placeholder. A placeholder is what a writer puts in when he can't think of the right line or idea just at the moment, but he'd better put in something and come back and fix it later. So, I imagine that Oscar Hammerstein just bunged in a 'a note to follow so' and thought he'd have another look at it in the morning.
"Only when he came to have another look at it in the morning, he couldn't come up with anything better. Or the next morning. Come on, he must have thought, this is simple. Isn't it? 'La… a something, something… what?'…
“How difficult can it be? How about this for a suggestion? 'La, a… a… '--well, I can't think of one at the moment, but I think that if the whole world pulls together on this, we can crack it."
(Douglas Adams, "Unfinished Business of the Century." The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time. Macmillan, 2002)