Sometimes you just can’t cotton-pickin’ remember what something’s called. Sometimes it’s a lot of times. What do you do in these moments?
A. Rack your brain, get really flustered, berate yourself for being so stupid, and draw a lot of attention to your brain fart.
B. Confess that you can’t remember what it’s called and then vow to double down on your dictionary studying.
C. Deftly slip in a placeholder and keep on talking como si nada, like a boss.
D. This could never happen, because you’re committed to not speaking until you know ALL THE WORDS.
The Vocabat way is C, of course. Flustered? Self-berating? Dictionary reading? For the nerds. So, how to 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 way to keep your self-dignity and hide your ignorance is by using a placeholder. What’s a placeholder? It’s a nonsense term that you use when you can’t or don’t want to say something’s name. Think, thingy, thingamajig, doodad, gizmo, doohickey, whatsit, widget, or whatchamacallit. You know, those whosie-whatsies. Whenever you can’t remember how to say some noun in Spanish, just throw in a thingamabob. It’s convenient that C is our answer, because the most common placeholders in Spanish start with c. Use a placeholder, and your listeners will be none the wiser. If anything, they’ll marvel at your colloquial fluency, not realizing that you’re mentally panting after all the rapid detours you took.
I remember that back in college, I read this NYT article where readers submitted their favorite on-the-tip-of-my-tongue words (many were words invented by their parents, or clearly influenced by words from “the old country”). I laughed uproariously and gave top honors to Shadoobie Jackson. It just makes you want to use fun placeholders like thingamadoodle and whatintheheckin the rest of your life and never call a thing by its real name! Oh, and 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 Spanish, a placeholder is called a comodín.
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, 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. Not to be confused with the Spanish word for puppy, which is cachorro. Nor with cachondo.
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 some thing 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. I once went out with a guy who claimed that his family had invented the non-word cosiampirutear. I don’t know about that, but there’s also cosiampirar and cosiampirular. And cosiampirulo for people. Cuchuflí is apparently the name of those long tube-shaped wafer cookies in many countries, and there’s got to be some connection to cuchiflí.
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 think 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.
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. 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?
Look at all these c words! (Except for vaina) I wonder why that is. Note that a very common way of using placeholders is: article + placeholder + ese/esa. You’ll sound that much more colloquial.
What placeholders do you know? I discovered chirimbolo, madrola, perol, martingala, comosellame, comosedice, chuchería, deste, chunche, trasto, bolado, and asunto. One extremely famous placeholder for people’s names—fulano (along with mengano and zutano)—probably deserves his own post, so we’ll give it to that Joe Schmoe. In the meantime, tell us, what do you say when you don’t know what to say in Spanish? Learning to mentally circumlocute and reroute is a huge part of fluency! (Which just means knowing how to keep things fluid, not knowing every single word.) Cosa, coso, chisme, cacharro, chécheres, and cachivache, plus the regional words based on where you are, will help you keep your whatsit, I mean whatchamacallit, that is, Imacallit cool.