Monday, February 9, 2009

The Price of Specificity

Have you ever used the word “thing,” and people believe you were being deliberately vague, forgetful, or even deceptive? “Honey, we can’t go out with your brother and his wife Friday night. We’ve got that, ah…thing,” you say, snapping your fingers.

What is this ambiguous “thing” you speak of, your wife wonders (Sometimes aloud. And sometimes louder than others). She squints her eyes, furrows her brow, and purses her lips. It seems it could lead to your death, or emasculation at least, this lack of clarity. But are you really being obtuse?

Grammatically speaking, you are not. In Old English, “thing,” meant “assembly,” or a meeting of people, such as a case before the court or convening of parliament. Dutch (dinc), German (ding), Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian (ting) all have similar words with similar etymologies—“a specific matter before a court” that got generalized to mean “any matter” or any “thing.” Similarly, the Latin causa, meaning “specific legal cause,” evolved in Italian and Spanish into cosa, meaning (obviously) “thing.”

Today, a “thing” is a “whatever.”

It’s a handy term. Try it with your kids as you’re unstopping a drain, contorted beyond human imagination beneath the kitchen sink. “Hey, Susie. I need the thing in my toolbox that turns this little doo-hickey. No, the other thing. Not THAT one, the OTHER one, the THING right there in front of your eyes! Are you blind? Ah, Jeez, don’t cry!”

The word has been generalized enough that it is part of our elementary school fabric. Every school kid knows a “noun” is a “person, place, or thing.” But rest assured, “thing” can be very, very specific.

So next time, say it with confidence. You’re not making lame excuses. No, you’ve got a “thing” to go to! Try it at Christmas. “Honey, I don’t think we can go to your mom’s this year. You know, we’ve got that thing.”

Let me know how that works out for you. My wife didn’t buy it one bit. Grammar/schammer. My “thing” got handed to me. Have a nice day.

1 comment:

  1. Need to know: Is thingy an acceptable variation on this official term?