The Online Etymology Dictionary explains the origin of the word gadget as follows:

1886, gadjet (but said to date back to 1850s), sailors' slang word for any small mechanical thing or part of a ship for which they lacked, or forgot, a name; perhaps from Fr. gâchette "catchpiece of a mechanism" (15c.), dim. of gâche "staple of a lock."

This means that the word was not used for small electronic devices in the beginning. After all, it would be quite hard to find any Blackberrys, Kindles and IPods back in the 1850s...

What about the current usage of the word gadget? Is it restricted to electronic devices? Or is it still used more generically as in the original meaning of the word?

  • 2
    I'd say it only appears as if gadget applies only to small electronic devices these days, because these days all the small devices that one could apply the word gadget to are almost invariably electronic.
    – user1635
    Commented Dec 30, 2010 at 13:52
  • Note how our late sibling used to have the clarification "Electronic" in its title.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Dec 30, 2010 at 14:19

2 Answers 2


"Gadget" is not restricted to electronic devices. Many of the clever tools used for food preparation are known as "kitchen gadgets". I myself cannot live without my ice cream scoop or pineapple corer.

Google returns 3.29 million results for "kitchen gadgets" and 19.9 million results for "garden gadgets".

And of course we must pay tribute to Inspector Gadget: the cartoon icon who is "a human being with various bionic gadgets built into his body".

  • 1
    Gadgets for cameras was another type I just remembered. Back in the day, my dad had a "gadget bag" that held all kinds of contraptions for his film cameras: shutter releases, an exposure timer (wind up mechanical gizmo, not electronic), lenses and filters and all kinds of stuff.
    – John Satta
    Commented Dec 30, 2010 at 18:51

John has nicely summarized the use of gadget. I just wanted to share some interesting related information.

If you search for the word "gadget" on Ngrams, you will see the nice image below, which indicates the occurrence frequency of this word in various books from 1800--2008.

This chart quite curiously indicates that the word peaked around 1950 (occupying greater popularity from the 40s to the 60s), before falling out of vogue. However, more interesting is the upswing that we see after 2000.

The first high points in the chart could potentially be attributed to Kitchen and Garden gadgets, while the upswing after 2000 is perhaps more due to more widespread use of electronic gadgets.

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  • Thanks John. If my interpretation of ngram's output is correct, then it is indeed quite curious!
    – Suvrit
    Commented Dec 30, 2010 at 18:57

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