The right place for placeholders

By bogotapost May 27, 2016

PlaceholdersKatie Jacoby furnishes us with all the do-das, whatsits and thingamajigs placeholders we need to forget words like a native

Sometimes you just can’t cotton-pickin’ remember what something’s called. How do you keep your composure and fake it when you draw a blank? It could be a word you know but that abandons you in the critical moment, or it could be a word you haven’t the slightest clue about. One savvy way to keep your self-dignity and hide your ignorance is by deftly slipping in some placeholders and keeping on talking como si nada, like a boss. What’s a placeholder? In Spanish, it’s a comodín, a nonsense term that you use when you can’t or don’t want to say something’s name. Think thingy, thingamajig, dooda, gizmo, doohickey, whatsit, widget, or whatchamacallit. You know, those whosie-whatsies. Whenever you can’t remember a specific word in Spanish, just throw in a thingamabob and your listeners will be none the wiser.

Don’t let anyone tell you that placeholders aren’t prestigious. After all, it wasn’t for nothing that Edgar Allan Poe wrote a short story titled The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.

In Colombia and many other countries, one of the most common placeholders is coso. Pásame ese coso. Or, even better, pásame el cosito ese. Of course, you could just say thing – cosa – but why say thing when you could say thingy? If we’re not to know a word, let’s not know it as colloquially as we can.

The placeholder king in Colombia, though, would have to be vaina. It’s also used in many other Latin American countries. Be careful with this one, though, because you might sound a little trashy if you use it every other word. Also, it’s often used when people are angry or annoyed. But so long as you use a normal tone of voice and no eye-rolling, you can fling it around without any risk of sounding ticked off. Vaina literally means a seed pod, and it can also mean a problem or messy situation. ¡Qué vaina!

Cacharro is a device or part, so it would be similar to gizmo or doohickey. A tool or thingamajigger in the kitchen or garage. Cacharro can also mean a piece of junk, like an old broken-down car.

A similar word to cacharro is cachivache. I usually translate this word as knickknack, but it can also be a piece of junk. And it also works to hold our place when we need to reference something whose name we don’t know. Used a lot in the plural: cachivaches. Both cachivache and cacharro are more or less universal.

Two uber-Colombian words I’ve heard are cosiámpiro/cosiámfiro and cuchiflí, and they make me happy. Rather old-fashioned sounding and corny, from what I can tell. If you had a Colombian grandmother, you could probably expect to be very familiar with them.

There’s also chécheres, which is yet another way to say things in various countries. A friend from the coast said checherear the other day for window shopping (I only knew vitrinear), that is, looking at things. We also have the local corotos, which I am told is things in Venezuela, but in Colombia is more specifically the collective things you take with you when you move or go on a trip. Your gear.

I got the idea for this post when I heard a guy in my class use chisme as a placeholder the other day. I’d read chisme with this usage in books, but I’d never heard it here in Colombia and don’t think it’s used here in Bogotá. He’s from a different region (Santander). In any case, chisme, in addition to a piece of gossip, means thingamajig in many countries, though it’s become somewhat old-fashioned and literary over time. Necesito que me recojas el chisme ese. ¿Ya tienes el chisme?

Note that you will sound that much more colloquial if you use place holders in this way: article + placeholder + ese/esa.

One extremely famous placeholder for people’s names is fulano (sometimes followed by mengano and zutano). It can mean Joe Schmoe (some person whose name isn’t relevant) or simply so-and-so, like I was talking to so-and-so and he said yada yada yada.

Learning to mentally circumlocute and keep going even when you don’t know every single word is a huge part of fluency! Placeholders like the ones above will help you keep your whatsit, I mean whatchamacallit, that is, Imacallit cool.

Katie Jacoby is a Spanish-English translator and has been in Colombia for three years. Feel free to leave her a comment or ideas for future columns on her language website,