When did ‘thing’ become a thing?
In May 2014, this blog briefly noted the rise of a new usage of the word thing to mean ‘generally known phenomenon’. This usage has been remarkably popular in recent years. Comedians, always alert to niceties of language, have called attention to the word’s new connotation. Recently, John Oliver introduced a new segment, titled ‘How Is This Not a Thing?’ (He explained, “While there are many things in this world that should no longer be things, there are also many non-things that should absolutely be thingified.”) And the NBC sitcom 30 Rock made a running joke of quibbling over whether something was ‘a thing’. (“Are you drinking red wine with tonic and olives?” “Yes. It’s an Old Spanish… Oh no, is that not a thing? They got me again!”)
How long have things been things?
For how long has this sense of thing been a thing? The answer may surprise you. The oldest sense of the word thing in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is ‘a meeting, an assembly’, first recorded in Old English. Soon afterward, a related sense arises, now referring to a charge, matter, or cause brought before such an assembly. (The Old English epic Beowulf, composed between 700 and 1000 AD, includes a passage in which Beowulf declares that he will resolve the ‘ðing’ with Grendel, presumably referring to an affair to be settled between himself and the monster.) If we consider ‘a matter for general discussion’ to be a paraphrase of the modern colloquial usage, then we may consider the newest usage of thing to resemble one of the oldest senses of the word.
The history of ‘thing’
The word þing in Old English had an equivalent in the word þing in Old Norse, both in use during a period when occasional waves of settlers arrived in the British Isles from Scandinavian countries. (Both words originate in the Proto-Indo-European *ten-, meaning ‘length of time’, ‘draw’, ‘stretch’, and the Germanic þengas, meaning ‘object’, ‘event’, ‘time to gather’.) As a term for ‘assembly’, it initially competed with the equivalent word in Anglo-Saxon, folkmoot. Over time, the usages of thing spread and diversified, coming to encompass ‘a matter with which one is concerned’, ‘a personal affair’, ‘a condition’, ‘an artifact’, ‘a detail’, and ‘an unknown entity’, among other meanings. The original meanings, ‘an assembly’ and ‘a matter for general discussion’, fell into obsolescence. However, in many of the Nordic languages, the Old Norse root retains its power. In Iceland, for example, the national parliament is known as the Alþingi, or ‘all-thing’.
As for the recent revival of this sense from obsolescence, we may tentatively date its appearance to sometime in the early 2010s. Searches on Google Books find the usage in popular novels starting around this time. We may find further anecdotal evidence to support this dating in a similar joke that alternates between different wordings. The 2004 film Mean Girls—which, like 30 Rock, was created by Tina Fey—includes a joke about whether something weirdly specific has become a generally known phenomenon. However, the term used to land the joke was not ‘thing’. Instead, it was ‘happen’: “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen! It’s not going to happen!”