Not counting the cats perched like pigeons all around the room.

Dear Word Detective: Over the weekend I was at a large rummage sale and one of the booths had a sign saying “Bric-a-Brac.” I know it means “odds and ends” or “knick knacks,” but what is the origin of the term? — Carolyn.

Ah yes, Spring, the beginning of the rummage/yard/garage sale season, when otherwise sane, frugal people rise at dawn on weekends to groggily comb through their neighbors’ bad purchasing decisions on the off chance that they’ll find a treasure among the inevitable exercise¬† gizmos (obviously unused) and dingy answering machines (clearly pining for the fjords). Back when the US was awash in cheap credit, you’d occasionally find a real bargain put up for sale so the owner could buy a newer one. But for the past few years, the people down the road from us, to pick a proximate example, have been sitting in their front yard every Saturday from April through September trying to sell nothing but plastic dinnerware, some very ugly hats, and a large, rusty chain. I guess they’re saving the shiny chains for eBay.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), that magisterial repository of linguistic odds and ends, defines “bric-a-brac” as “Old curiosities of artistic character, knick-knacks, antiquarian odds-and-ends, such as old furniture, plate, china, fans, statuettes, and the like.” Whether that definition encompasses today’s typical rummage sale fare is debatable, in particular whether “statuettes” includes bobble-head figurines of football players, a favorite around here. And I’m pretty sure they mean the ornamental hand fans popular in the 19th century, not the cat-fur encrusted box fans so often seen at yard sales. So I think it’s fair to say that the “artistic” part of that definition is true, in many cases, solely in the eye of the seller.

“Bric-a-brac” (the hyphens are optional) is, not surprisingly, a French import, probably a modification of the expression “de bric et de broc,” which the OED translates as “by hook or by crook,” and other sources render as “here a little, there a little,””at random” or simply as a nonsense phrase “expressive of confusion.” The basic sense is of a collection of inconsequential but vaguely interesting and pleasant items used as ornamentation in a home, etc., or as the American Heritage Dictionary says, “Small, usually ornamental objects valued for their antiquity, rarity, originality, or sentimental associations.”

The closest synonym of “bric-a-brac” is probably one you mentioned in your question, “knick-knack,” meaning a small article or trinket used for decoration (again, the hyphen is optional and it’s often seen as “knickknack”). “Knick-knack” is simply a repetitive form of “knack,” which originally meant “a trick or devious method,” but later came to mean “a small ingenious toy or trinket.” (“Knack” also eventually took on the meaning of “the trick or acquired faculty of doing something cleverly and successfully,” as in “Bob had the knack of getting late fees removed from his account.”)

Another good word (and one of my favorite words) for the sort of little dust magnets found on many peoples’ mantles and bookshelves is the Yiddish “tchotchke” (plural “tchotchkies”), which is often seen in the phonetic Anglicized spelling “chachka.” I think I have a small tchotchke problem myself. I took an inventory of my office bookshelves a few years ago and tallied a mechanical cow, a small rubber walrus, a small rubber cat, two plastic lobsters, an extensive collection of gargoyle figurines, and a small plastic toaster which, when wound, marches across your desk waving slices of toast and rolling its eyes. I’d be tempted to offer this stuff at a yard sale, but I need the toaster for my work.

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