by Admin
Updated: July 31, 2020

Widgets used to be abstract units of production but the term is now used for identifiable things

A long time ago, a widget was not a thing. Unless you knew this, you might think it was a proper name for something, but it was a proper name for nothing in particular. Widgets represented things in hypothetical situations where the most important thing about those things was that what they were was not important.

More specifically, widgets referred to a simple physical object produced by some kind of manufacturing process.


A widget has long been used to refer to an abstract unit of production. This is useful for when we want to talk about the operations of business in principle without being distracted by exactly what that business does.


Beggar on Horseback cover cropped
Beggar on Horseback
CADY: “Widgets.” page 132

The earliest use of the term “widget” seems to come from the 1924 play Beggar on Horseback by George S Kaufman and Marc Connelly.

In this play, the protagonist has to choose between his as yet unprofitable creative pursuits and a highly paid job manufacturing widgets.

Using the unfamiliar term, widget, without defining it establishes that it doesn’t matter - what is at issue is the choice is between the two modes.

From nothing to something

In addition to illustrative purposes, “widget” has been useful as a placeholder name to use for products while their proper name is being decided. A lack of creativity results in those products being called “widgets” for longer.

Furthermore, after having studied enough fictitious businesses making fictitious widgets, a certain type of person will begin to like the idea of calling a real product a widget.

Either way, it was only a question of time...

Identifiable things

Some time around the late 1980s, in the realm of graphical user interface (GUI, computers) development, certain controls needed a name and eventually these window gadgets became contracted into widgets. As such, they are now everywhere, typically referring to some kind of information display embedded into the main view.

Also from the late ’80s, plastic inserts were developed (initially by Guinness and later by others) in an attempt to give canned and bottled beer the same consistency as that obtained in a bar. Marketing referred to them as widgets.

Alternatives to widgets

Now that a widget is a thing, what can we use instead when we don’t want to be specific?

In writing I tend to use “units,” but in verbal presentations it’s a little cumbersome (people want to know, “units of what?”).

Verbally I’ve found that “Fings,” works quite well because it sounds enough like “things” for the uninitiated get the idea without having to ask. Plus, people seem to find Fings amusing.

More info

Examples of web widgets on this page are the ads and the comment section. On your cellphone’ main screen(s), widgets provide more info than just an icon, e.g. the current weather.

“Widget” is defined at dictionary.com, merriam-webster.com and whatis.techtarget.com.

Takes on the meaning of, “Fing” at urbandictionary.com.

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