Q: I’m accustomed to the use of “thing” with a modifier to mean a fad (“X is the next big thing” or “I’m sick of this X thing”), but now I’m seeing it used by itself in that sense (“X is now a thing”). Your thoughts?
A: We discussed the history of the word “thing” in a post a few years ago, but we didn’t mention the usage you’re asking about.
As far as we can tell, the use of “thing” by itself to mean a fad or trend cropped up in print in the mid-1980s. But before getting into all the trendy senses of “thing,” let’s look at the origins of this very adaptable word.
The noun “thing,” as we said in our earlier post, has roots that go back into pre-history, before written language, when a Germanic root reconstructed as thingam is believed to have referred to time.
In the Germanic languages, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, this ancient term came to mean “appointed time” and then evolved into a “judicial or legislative assembly.”
That was the meaning of the word when it showed up in Old English, a sense that’s still seen in other Germanic languages. The Icelandic parliament, Ayto notes, “is known as the Althing (literally ‘general assembly’).”
“In English, however, it moved on through ‘subject for discussion at such an assembly’ to ‘subject in general, affair, matter’ and finally ‘entity, object,’ ” Ayto says.
All those senses—and many more—developed back in Anglo-Saxon times, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED has Old English examples for “thing” as subject, business, concern, matter, affair, deed, circumstance, fact, event, experience, incident, statement, idea, object, and so on.
In short, “thing” can mean almost anything. And some of its trendy contemporary meanings sound similar to senses that were around in the days of Ælfred the Great, the scholar-king who used the word quite a few times himself.
We don’t have the time or the stamina to discuss all the meanings of “thing” (it takes us more than 60 screenfuls to scroll through the OED’s online entry).
So let’s begin with the first usage you mentioned, “the next big thing,” which the OED defines as “the latest popular sensation; the newest trend in a particular field.”
The earliest Oxford example for the expression used this way is from a July 9, 1977, issue of Sounds weekly: “Chelsea mainman Gene October sez that the next big thing will be up and coming band New Hearts.”
However, we’ve found examples for “the next big thing” dating back to the late 1800s, when it originally referred to an important theatrical production.
The earliest example in our searches of online databases is from the June 2, 1883, issue of Punch: “I promised to put him into my next big thing.”
The modern sense of “the next big thing” as a fad or trend first showed up, we’ve found, in an 1894 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association:
“The next ‘big thing’ to which I call attention, is the nostrum vendor. This dare-devil worries me; every mail brings some of his diabolical literature or some of his infernal stuff, ‘all free gratis and for nothing.’ ”
A 1912 article in the International Socialist Review, entitled “The Next Big Thing,” uses it to mean “big and important” campaigns that “chase each other off the stage of life” with “the speed of a quick change artist.”
And an April 24, 1922, article in the American Dyestuff Reporter describes radiotelephony as “beyond a doubt, ‘the next big thing.’ ”
In this phrase, the meaning of “thing” clearly has a lot in common with those Old English examples in the OED that we mentioned above.
And it brings to mind a sense of the word that appeared in the early 1700s—the use of the phrase “the thing” to mean “the embodiment or epitome of stylishness.”
The OED’s first citation for “the thing” is from a 1734 essay by Alexander Pope, but we prefer this example from Distress Upon Distress, a 1752 play by George Alexander Stevens:
“Cæsar had certainly something smart about him: Mark Anthony was a very jemmy Fellow, and Cleopatra quite the Thing to be sure.”
The OED also has citations dating back to the early 1900s for the colloquial use of “thing” after a noun, noun phrase, or adjective to mean “the matter or business which pertains to or is associated with the specified place, phenomenon, etc.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from Skidoo! (1906), a collection of comic sketches by Hugh McHugh, the pen name of George V. Hobart, a director, producer, and writer on Broadway:
“When it comes to that poetry thing he thinks he can make Hank Longfellow beat it up a tree.”
The OED’s most recent citation is from the March 2003 issue of the gadget magazine T3: “There’s an FM/MW tuner inside to pick up any slowcoaches who haven’t cottoned on to the digital thing yet.”
Contributors to the Language Log website pointed out in 2011 that “thing” here is sometimes used to dismiss the subject as unimportant. One example cited is a quote, attributed to former President George H. W. Bush: “Oh, the vision thing.”
However, this OED citation, from a May 18, 1955, letter by Flannery O’Connor, is a more clear-cut example of the term used dismissively: “I will be real glad when this television thing is over with.”
Finally we come to the use of “thing” by itself to mean a fad or a trend. The earliest example we’ve found is from an article in the November 1984 issue of Musician magazine.
In the article, Garry Tallent, the bassist for the E Street Band, comments on a People magazine piece that compared the “clean-living” band to the Hardy Boys.
“It’s true,” Tallent is quoted as saying, “but, especially since People magazine, it’s become a thing.”
Tallent was ahead of the curve, since most of the examples we’ve found for the usage are from the last few years, as in this May 5, 2015, headline from the Huffington Post: “If ‘Dadbod’ Is a Thing, What About Mombod?”
What, you ask, are our thoughts about all this thinginess?
Well, the word “thing” has been doing its own thing since Anglo-Saxon days. And the thing about “thing” is that the newest incarnations often aren’t all that new.
In fact, the modern-sounding expression “do your thing” (or “do your own thing”) first showed up in an 1841 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“But do your thing and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”
Emerson knew a thing or two.