Q: What is the history of the phrase “this, that, and the other thing”? I find it to be one of the most vacuous expressions in the English language. I have a near visceral reaction when it falls upon my ears.
A: Well, this may not be the meatiest of expressions, but the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t consider it quite as empty as you do.
The OED defines the phrase “this, that, and the other” as meaning every possible or every imaginable or every sort of. It’s listed in a group of phrases contrasting “this” and “that.”
In fact, English speakers have been pairing “this” and “that” in expressions since the 14th century. For example, John Gower’s Middle English poem Confessio Amantis (1390) says: “In ech of hem he fint somwhat / That pleseth him, in this or that.”
The first published reference for “this, that, and the other thing” in the OED is from Sir Walter Scott’s novel St. Ronan’s Well (1824): “I am sure I aye took your part when folk miscaa’d ye, and said ye were this, that, and the other thing.”
The OED has a more recent citation from the Ngaio Marsh mystery Artists in Crime (1938): “It’s a bit awkward what with this and that and the other thing.”
I’m not especially bothered by this expression. Is it vacuous? Well, I usually hear it used loosely in the sense of every sort of, rather than with the somewhat more precise meaning of every possible or every imaginable.
So, you may have a point. But I wouldn’t lose a lot of sleep over it.