A what-not is a piece of furniture derived from the French étagère, which was exceedingly popular in England in the first three-quarters of the 19th century. It usually consists of slender uprights or pillars, supporting a series of shelves for holding china, ornaments, trifles, or what not, hence the allusive name. In its English form, although a convenient piece of drawing room furniture, it was rarely beautiful. The early mahogany examples are, however, sometimes graceful in their simplicity.
What-not is an English word (UK) which is used as a fill-in for a forgotten or unknown word (most commonly an item). It can also be used for a collection of miscellaneous items.
What-not is also an English (USA) term used to incorporate any other details not mentioned. This term is used much like et cetera to supplement details.
In By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mrs Boast shows the Ingalls family how to make a "whatnot". Pa Ingalls built five shelves, which were set into a corner and the girls decorated it with scalloped and folded pasteboard curtains. Once it was finished, the whole thing, paper and all, was painted brown to look like a solid piece of furniture.
A "what not shelf" has turned into tchotcke. In other words, a frivilous collection of items that may not have any meaning to the viewer. The collector, on the other hand, feels compelled to collect.
- Wilder, Laura Ingalls (first published 1939, reprinted 1979). By The Shores of Silver Lake. Harper Trophy. pp. 208–211. ISBN 978-0-06-440005-3.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
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