The history of the word 'thing'. By English with Stephen

Word Stories: Here’s the Thing!

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode looking at the history and meaning of the word ‘thing’.

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Hello and welcome! My name is Stephen Greene and this is Learning English with Stephen, the podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English in less than 10 minutes.

Today we are going to look at the history of one of my favourite words: Thing

It is such a useful word in that it can be extremely vague, or extremely precise.

It forms parts of many other words, for example, ‘something’.

It is so common, but with a very uncommon origins story.

Find out all about this fascinating word, after this musical interlude.

If you are new to this podcast, then welcome. I need to tell you that you can find the transcript to this episode, as well as my previous episodes, on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com. Also on my site, I post images and links to other things that might be of interest. And today, there are A LOT of links. I have found lots of different things you might be interested in and posted them on my site, including music, a Spotify playlist, and movie trailers. So, go and check them all out at EnglishwithStephen.com

And now, back to the thing.

The dictionary says it is a word that is used to talk about objects without naming them. ‘Thing’ can also be used to talk about your possessions, as in ‘All my things are in my suitcase.’

I love this word because it is so flexible. “I can’t go see you later because I have a thing to do,” is a great excuse because it is so vague. I don’t need to tell you what the ‘thing’ is. I also like the phrase. ‘I have a thing to do.’

But at the same time, it is also very precise. For example, “That’s the exact thing that I wanted!”

It is also a very useful word for people learning English as it can be used to get around problems. For example, when you forget a word you can say “You know that thing that you use to rest your head on when you go to bed?” and hopefully the other person will say “Do you mean a pillow?”

Obviously, ‘thing’ is used with other words, for example, ‘something’, ‘nothing’, and ‘anything’.

The sportswear company Adidas regularly uses it in their advertising with the slogan ‘Impossible is nothing!’

In fact, the word ‘thing’ is so useful that there are almost thousands of songs with the word in its title, from Faith No More to Lisa Stansfield. The Irish band, U2, have at least 2 songs using the word ‘thing’. If you go to my site EnglishwithStephen.com, you will find links to some of my favourite ‘thing’ songs.

But where did this most useful word come from?

It is a very old word that has followed a surprising path to get to its current meaning.

So the word comes from the Germanic family of languages. This language family includes modern German, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and English.

The original meaning of the word was a form of meeting, or council in the Norse, or Viking, tradition. The idea was that the important people in a local area would come together once or twice a year at a ‘thing’ to make important decisions. It was kind of like an assembly or place for political decisions.

These ‘things’ were often held in the same place every year so that it would be easy to find them. There are many places in northern Europe and the British Isles that incorporate the word ‘thing’ into their name, for example, there is Thingwall, near Liverpool, Dingwall in Scotland, Tynwald on the Isle of Man. All of the places mean ‘The assembly field’.

Incidentally, the assembly on the Isle of Man is the oldest parliament in the world with an unbroken existence going back over 1, 000 years.

These ‘things’ had very specific rules. They were always held outside and all of the participants had to take their arms, their swords, axes, and other weapons with them. I suppose having a thing outside in the snow or rain with everyone armed to the teeth is one way to make sure meetings stay on track.

After a while, the word ‘thing’ changed its meaning from ‘assembly’ to ‘the items we will talk about at the assembly’. SO you could say something like ‘we have lots of things to talk about’, or ‘let’s move onto the next thing.’

From here, it is easy to see how the word started to mean not only things to talk about, but also things you possess.

In addition, there is also a similar thing in some Romance languages. For example, in Portuguese, the direct translation for thing is coisa. In Spanish it is cosa and French chose. The origin of this word is the Latin causa which was a cause, or claim, or item that had to be discussed or decided upon in court. This means it also started off as something to be decided in a meeting and is now just a ‘thing’.

I hope you have found this story interesting, I know I did. Remember that there are lots of links and other things, including the transcript to this episode on my site EnglishwithStephen.com

Thanks for listening. I have to go now because I have a thing to do!

Anyway…..

Spotify Playlist

The Real Thing (Lisa Stansfield) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=025jjzz5tMk

The Real Thing (Faith No More) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I625zPMQ4r4

Even Better than the Real Thing (U2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHKMoLY5ueY

The Sweetest Thing (U2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WybiA263bw

Let’s call the whole thing off (Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2oEmPP5dTM

Crazy Little thing called love (Queen) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zO6D_BAuYCI

Livin’ Thing (ELO) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvBOZCrJsAI

Oh, you pretty things (Bowie) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3JWGXagA1MI

The Troggs (Wild Thing) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSWInYFVksg

https://www.reddit.com/r/etymology/comments/g7zo3w/origin_of_the_word_thing/

The Thing (1982) Trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySvzHdtCiWE

A picture of the front half of a Viking ship with a blood red background behind it. Includes a title: 'Word Stories: Heres the thing by English with Stephen.'
Some good Viking things.

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