Stickybeak’s Lexicon: Gewgaw.

Stickybeak’s Lexicon

An irregular rummage through the world of words. (Or, should I know what that means?)



There are many methods of acquiring new words; some, no doubt, easier than others.

Reading a dictionary from cover to cover is guaranteed to turn up a fair sprinkling of fresh vocabulary, but imagine the work involved. I don’t doubt that many a young child has spent lonely nights flicking through their cherished copy of a dictionary; I can’t claim to have done the same, but I was equally absorbed by my Philip’s Great World Atlas and proudly knew (still know) most capital cities, official languages, flags and currencies of the majority of the world’s countries. (Admittedly this has become a more onerous task since the break up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, but I feel I’d still be equal to it).

Another route to glossarial greatness is to become a spelling-bee junkie, either as nervous participant or voyeuristic observer. This is the competitive route to word acquisition and could be all the more stimulating for it.

A far simpler, and possibly more satisfying method, is to simply stumble upon words as they appear in all their confusing and unfamiliar guises on the pages of whatever it is you are currently reading. This has the added bonus of providing context, thereby allowing you to not only learn the spelling of a new word, but also its meaning.

It was in this manner that I came across today’s subject (or should that be object?). Gewgaw appeared to me, much like the Goddess Athene appears numerous times to Odysseus, in the pages of The Odyssey. Typically, I failed to note the exact location of the word, but it had something to do with what Penelope was occupied with at the time (crying/weaving/lamenting?) and its strangeness caught my attention sufficiently enough to scribble it down on a scrap of paper.


In isolation, it does look odd.


Pronounced gyou, as in stew and gaw as in, well, gaw.

My reference library, which amounts to two dictionaries and a thesaurus, tells me that a gewgaw is a gaudy plaything or ornament; a bauble; a toy. As an adjective, gewgaw can be used to mean being showy without value. This, then, is the essence of the word: it is a cheap Christmas decoration, glittered into submission so that you would never know the difference; or a street corner handbag, blinged to the max. It is, in fact, a Liberace word.

I imagine a gewgaw would feel thoroughly at home on the page of an Austin or Thackeray; Becky Sharp would surely have basked in the glow of any number of gewgaws which she’d been able to lay her hands on. However, I’d imagine its use in contemporary literature has been less frequent, (if you beg to differ, please correct me).

That is not to say that modern-day people do not enjoy the benefits of the gewgaw; Paris Hilton probably has an entire condo simply stuffed with the things. You might even suggest her dog is a gewgaw of sorts, carried in a gewgaw handbag.

Which leads me to ask whether a person can be a gewgaw. Exhibit A: Ms Hilton. A gewgaw, carrying a gewgaw, stuffed in a gewgaw. Exhibit B: Liberace. The total gewgaw. Exhibit C: (one for the republican-minded, this) The Queen. A right royal gewgaw. Ma’am.

I’ve been trying to slip the word into everyday conversation ever since I found it, but the opportunity has so far failed to arise. Few women would thank you for describing their earrings as gewgaw; and imagine the insult inflicted on your average male if you described his swanky new motor in such terms.

For now I shall allow it to linger in the lexicon’s dusty corners until the time comes to brush it off so that it may shine, if only for a brief, gaudy moment. In the meantime, if you can think of any examples where gewgaw has occurred, or if you have some of your own, please let me know. Stickybeak’s Lexicon is for sharing, after all.

© flyingscribbler 2011

3 comments on “Stickybeak’s Lexicon: Gewgaw.

  1. Helen says:

    What a super duper word – I have added your gewgaw to my list – I think stumbling across words is the nicest way of discovering them – one of my favourites that I stumbled across was cutpurse – theif, pickpocket.

  2. Hi there Justin — I’ve heard that word used a few times by Glaswegians, for some reason. Maybe because it does have a pretty solid Scots feel to it, if pronounced ‘gee-gaw’. Tricky dropping into a conversation without having to explain yourself (immediately, sir!). St.

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