The Grammarphobia Blog

We say the darndest things

Q: I don’t see why we use “things” in a sentence like this: “Don’t say things like that.” Things are objects, aren’t they? We wouldn’t use “objects” in that sentence: “Don’t say objects like that.” I realize this usage is long-established, but it sounds very slangish to me. By the way is there such a word as “slangish”?

A: The word “thing” doesn’t have to refer to a physical object. So we do indeed say things, do things, wish for things, think of things, promise things, and so on.

This usage is perfectly correct and there’s nothing slangy about it. (“Slangy” is the usual adjective, though “slangish,” meaning somewhat slangy, is in the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.)

We’re glad you raised this question, however. “Thing” is such a common word that most of us take it for granted, and aren’t familiar with its very uncommon history.

The etymological roots of “thing” go far back into pre-history, before written language. Its “ancestral meaning,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, is “time.”

The OED explains that an ancient relative of “thing” can be found in Gothic, a now defunct Germanic language in which the word theihs meant “occasion” or “time.”

The origin of theihs probably lies even further back in prehistory, the OED says.

Ultimately, the Gothic word may be from the same Indo-European base as the classical Latin word tempus (“time”), which is a good illustration of how the Germanic and the Latinate languages are ancestrally related.

In the Germanic languages, as Ayto explains, this ancient term came to mean “appointed time” and consequently evolved into meaning a “judicial or legislative assembly.”

For example, the word for a court or legislative body developed into thing in Icelandic, and ting in Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish. (Iceland’s parliament is called the Althing.)

In Old English, too, as the OED explains, the word “thing” at one time meant “a meeting, an assembly; esp. a deliberative or judicial assembly, a court, a council.”

But even during the Old English period the word took on a much more general meaning.

From a subject under discussion at a meeting, “thing” came to mean any subject, business, concern, matter, affair, deed, circumstance, fact, event, experience, incident, statement, idea, object, and so on.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes: “Similar semantic developments are found in the Romance languages, in which Latin causa, legal case, has given rise to French chose, Italian and Spanish cosa, all meaning ‘thing.’ ”

In short, “thing” can mean almost anything (which reminds us that the old phrases “any thing,” “every thing,” “no thing,” and “some thing” are now written as one word).

In modern English, a remnant of the old meaning “assembly” survives in the word “hustings,” a word we hear a lot in the campaign season.

A “husting” or “hustings” (literally “house assembly”) was originally a court, tribunal, or council among members of a household.

In the early 18th century people began using “hustings” to mean the platform from which politicians make campaign speeches.

Check out our books about the English language