Stickybeak’s Lexicon. Gimcrack. A fantastically useful word.

Stickybeak’s Lexicon

Expanding my vocabulary one word at a time



Some words simply shout out to be used. Yes, they sit quietly enough inside your dusty dictionary, chatting occasionally to the words either side of them, but they yearn to be let free and roam the pages of novels, newspapers, poems and, who knows, maybe even e-mails.


Gimcrack is one such word. If ever a word suited its meaning with such glorious perfection, then surely this is it.


I came across it in a poem by John Betjeman. In the second stanza of ‘Felixstowe, or The Last of Her Order’ (Collected Poems, 1958), he refers to “the gimcrack attic of the villa”. I hadn’t encountered the word before, but even without a dictionary to hand, I think I could have made a pretty good guess as to its meaning. I immediately had an image of creaking old rafters through which the cold wind could blow freely. Perhaps the occasional drip, drip, drip of water or a brief glimpse of daylight where the roof tiles have slipped.  As an adjective gimcrack can indeed mean shoddy; it can also be used to describe something showy but flimsy and worthless. Equally, as a noun, a gimcrack is a cheap showy ornament; a knick-knack; a poorly made flimsy article; a dodge, a trick. Alternative forms of the word are gimcrackery (n) and gimcracky (adj). My Collins Concise offers the alternative jimcrack, (and this is how it is pronounced in all forms, if you were wondering).


Isn’t it wonderful? The possibilities for this word are legion. I wonder if gimcrack is one of those words which was more commonly known a half century or so ago. Perhaps it still is in regular use and I’ve failed to notice.


My favourite form is gimcrackery, especially when spoken with pronounced rolls to each ‘r’, (think Lady Bracknell and you’ll know what I mean).


It also occurs to me that it would make a rather good name for a comedic character: Jim Crackery, good friend of Tom Foolery and Gerry Mandering. Do you know them?


I think it would be right and proper to end with Betjeman’s poem in full; it was his work which led me to this splendid word, after all. Enjoy.


Felixstowe, or The Last of Her Order (John Betjeman)


With one consuming roar along the shingle
The long wave claws and rakes the pebbles down
To where its backwash and the next wave mingle,
A mounting arch of water weedy-brown
Against the tide the off-shore breezes blow.
Oh wind and water, this is Felixstowe.

In winter when the sea winds chill and shriller
Than those of summer, all their cold unload
Full on the gimcrack attic of the villa
Where I am lodging off the Orwell Road,
I put my final shilling in the meter
And only make my loneliness completer.

In eighteen ninety-four when we were founded,
Counting our Reverend Mother we were six,
How full of hope we were and prayer-surrounded
"The Little Sisters of the Hanging Pyx".
We built our orphanage. We built our school.
Now only I am left to keep the rule.

Here in the gardens of the Spa Pavilion
Warm in the whisper of the summer sea,
The cushioned scabious, a deep vermillion,
With white pins stuck in it, looks up at me
A sun-lit kingdom touched by butterflies
And so my memory of the winter dies.

Across the grass the poplar shades grow longer
And louder clang the waves along the coast.
The band packs up. The evening breeze is stronger
And all the world goes home to tea and toast.
I hurry past a cakeshop's tempting scones
Bound for the red brick twilight of St.John's.

"Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising"
Here where the white light burns with steady glow
Safe from the vain world's silly sympathising,
Safe with the love I was born to know,
Safe from the surging of the lonely sea
My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee.


© flyingscribbler 2011 (not the poem, obviously)






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