What does gimcrack mean?

Word count: 299 words

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: gimcrack.

I adore reading. I like well written historical fiction. And I’m particularly fascinated by the Tudor period. Yet for reasons I cannot understand, I haven’t warmed to Hillary Mantel’s Elizabethan novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I took the first one out of the library (thank goodness I didn’t buy it!) and spent three weeks with it staring at me, reproachfully, on my bedside table. I breached its spine several times but the book kept putting me to sleep!

New Yorker writer James Wood, however, gives a largely positive review of Mantel’s more recent title. Here’s my suggestion: rather than read Mantel, read the review in the May 7/12 issue. It’s extraordinarily well written, historically interesting and very entertaining. I mention his piece because it also gives me my word of the week, gimcrack. Here is the sentence:

Both this new book (Bring Up the Bodies) and its predecessor, Wolf Hall, are mysteriously successful historical novels, a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness. 

I knew that gimcrack meant something that was cheap and showy, of little or no use. But I didn’t know the etymology, and this gave me the chance to look it up. Use of the word was first recorded 1839. Unfortunately, the origin is uncertain. Some think, perhaps, it’s an alteration of gibecrake, a kind of ornament on wooden furniture from the mid-14th century. Or it may be from the Old French, giber, meaning “to rattle or shake.” In the 18th century, it also  meant “a person who has a turn for mechanical contrivances.” Nethertheless, I think it’s a marvellous word.