Is That Thing Called a Knick-knack, or Bric-a-brac?

Recently, I was meandering through my trusty Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (shorter, as in not quite as gargantuan as the Encyclopaedia Britannica).

This is a habit I acquired in my youth, but indulge less frequently these days, usually when I’m trying to curb my morbid addiction to Facebook.

I hadn’t probed far into this two-volume door stopper before my eyes (or my finger) stumbled across a word I’ve known all my life, but seldom use: bric-a-brac.

It’s a lovely word that creates a succulent explosion of the lips and a satisfying click of the tongue against one’s upper dentures. Try it. I think you’ll like it.

Rather than just glide by, confident that I already knew what it meant, I actually took time to read the definition. Turns out, it means more than just those fiddly little items that sit on the mantelpiece, screaming to be dusted at 20-minutes intervals.

Bric-a-brac, I was learned, learn, does not necessarily refer to an insubstantial piece of kitsch, a tsastke (or tchotchke, depending where you learned your Yiddish spelling). Neither is it always a trinket, a trifle, or a mere bagatelle.

In fact, bric-a-brac boasts a status similar to that of its first cousin, the honoured knick-knack.

Admittedly, as someone who has never paddy whacked anyone or anything, I cannot claim expertise on the subtle differences between them.

My friends at Oxford inform me that a knick-knack may be a “small, dainty article of furniture, dress, etc.,” or a “frivolous object more for ornament than use.”

On page 288, they advise that bric-a-brac refers to “miscellaneous old ornaments, trinkets, small pieces of furniture, etc.; antiquarian knick-knacks”. They go on to state confidently that its origins lie in the French phrase à bric-à-brac, meaning “at random”.

My other Oxford, a slim and concise 1,552 pages, defines bric-a-brac as “curiosities, old furniture, china, fans, etc.” Curiously, it suggests the word comes – perhaps – from a different French phrase, which we translate as “by hook or by crook”.

Personally, I lean toward the Concise OED definition, for one main reason: it includes fans among the examples of possible bric-a-brac. For a flighty mind such as mine, the word “fan” immediately summons up another glorious word: scrimshaw.

Go ahead, say that one a few times. Slowly. Very slowly. Let it linger on the tongue, like a fine sip of Madeira. Scrimmmm … shaw.

For me, it conjures images of ornate, lace-like carvings in ivory, or more environmentally-excusable materials such as shell, or antler. On a dainty fan, or a screen to shield an opium parlour from public view.

I really should look that one up and absorb its meaning properly, if time permits. But alas, with the Shorter OED, it can be a long, long journey from B to S.

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