Placeholder names are words that people use to when they can’t remember something’s or someone’s name.
Let’s start this blog with a fun #LudejoLeermomentje. You know, one of those wonderful facts we often share on our Instagram page. Did you know there’s a linguistic link between the ‘You-know-what-cat’ (Dutch: Je-weet-wel-kater) from the Dutch comic strip Jack, Jacky & the Juniors and ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’ (ha, dare me:), a.k.a. Voldemort, from the Harry Potter fantasy novels?
Now, you could just say: “Well, duh, they’re both fictional characters”, which would be true, but what I’m trying to get at here is the fact that both the You-know-what-cat and the Dark Lord (honestly, how many names does one need?) are placeholder names.
And since I’m about eighty-seven percent sure that you aren’t familiar with these linguistic placeholders. I thought it might be an interesting blog subject, so here we are.
Placeholder names are words that people use to when they can’t remember something’s or someone’s name, or when the name is irrelevant within a certain context. I mentioned the You-know-what-cat and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named as examples of placeholder names which Jan Kruis and J.K. Rowling used to avoid less pleasant names. (That also means that both terms are euphemisms: a milder term to describe something so it sounds more innocuous and less unpleasant than it actually is. Now don’t worry, I won’t bore you with endless linguistic terminology. I’ll save that for another blog.)
But it can also work the other way around, in which case the placeholder names have negative connotations. A good example would be the Dutch word ‘tokkie’. In the Netherlands, this word is generally used to refer to antisocial people or people with predominantly negative character traits. The term ‘coronatokkie’ was even coined at the start of the corona pandemic as a means to describe those who were hoarding groceries, buying 200 toilet rolls and couldn’t seem to manage to keep 2 metres distance between themselves and others.
All of the placeholders I’ve mentioned so far are examples that can be found in either the English or the Dutch language. But other languages use them frequently as well. I don’t imagine it’d be a surprise to you that the French aren’t likely to use the word like ‘thingy’. Each language has its own culture-specific placeholder names. And as is the case for all culture-specific language, translators must be especially vigilant when translating placeholder names. Someone from France or Denmark probably won’t understand what is meant when a Dutch person uses the word ‘tokkie’.
To help out my colleagues from the translation department, I’ve looked up a couple other placeholder names that are used in other languages. Well, to be honest, I may have looked them up mainly because I thought it was a pretty entertaining way to pass the time. Anyway, if you’re interested in some more language-related fun facts to impress your colleagues, be sure to keep reading.
While in the Netherlands we use ‘Verweggistan’, ‘Timboektoe’ and ‘Schubbekutteveen’ (great word, honestly) to describe a faraway or undefined place, and we’d use ‘the middle of nowhere’ in English, the Spaniards will say ‘en las Chimambas’, Sometimes they’ll add ‘lejanas’, which results in ‘en las lejanas Chimambas’, or ‘in the faraway Chimamba country’.
Even though both places may not exist, I feel like I’d strongly prefer going to ‘las lejanas Chimambas’ rather than ‘Schubbekutteveen’.
The Italian version is considerably more vulgar (but as you may remember from my blog on gross-sounding words, I can appreciate vulgar language from time to time): the Italians use ‘in culo alla luna’ when talking about a faraway place, which means ‘in the arse of the moon’. I must confess there are less vulgar alternatives, like ‘a casa del diavolo’ which would be ‘in the devil’s house’, but to me, the ruder version is just more fascinating (#sorrynotsorry).