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Old 01-14-2019, 04:36 PM
purplehorseshoe purplehorseshoe is offline
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When did referring to something as "a thing" become, well, a thing? What were they called before?

I'm old enough to remember encountering this phrase and thinking of it as a cute novelty. It's a useful term, but it's sort of meta that we didn't have a way to describe something being a thing before "being a thing" became a thing.

Or did we?

I'm having a hard time doing any searches on its true origin. (Turns out googling "thing" goes ... places.)
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Old 01-14-2019, 04:42 PM
Andy L Andy L is online now
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Late 1990s to early 2000s, apparently http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=25229
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Old 01-14-2019, 04:43 PM
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Letterman had a kind of sideshow segment he did occasionally called "Is This A Thing?". The curtain would go up and someone would be doing some unusual act. Dave and Paul would discuss whether it was a thing, in the sense of entertainment.

The big stars that were so well-liked that they were incorporated into every time the segment ran were Grinder Girl and Hula Hoop Girl.
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Old 01-14-2019, 04:55 PM
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Isn't "being a thing" a sort of general term, and previously you would have used a more specific one?
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Old 01-14-2019, 05:07 PM
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At about the same time that the language of philosophy shifted from Latin to English. Before that, you'd speak of something being reified.
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Old 01-14-2019, 05:13 PM
Lucas Jackson Lucas Jackson is offline
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Back in the early 80’s I dated a lot of models. They referred to other models as “thing”.
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Old 01-14-2019, 05:18 PM
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Here is the earliest recorded usage in the OED:

2000 A. Sorkin West Wing (transcribed from TV programme) 2nd Ser. Episode 5 Did you know ‘leaf peeping’ was a thing?
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Old 01-14-2019, 06:23 PM
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There's such a thing as purplehorseshoe.
purplehorseshoe exists.
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Old 01-14-2019, 06:25 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Inner Stickler View Post
Here is the earliest recorded usage in the OED:

2000 A. Sorkin West Wing (transcribed from TV programme) 2nd Ser. Episode 5 Did you know ‘leaf peeping’ was a thing?
I was going to post that I personally first remember hearing this on The West Wing.
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Old 01-14-2019, 06:29 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by naita View Post
Isn't "being a thing" a sort of general term, and previously you would have used a more specific one?
I believe that usage that the OP is asking about is when people call a potential problem as "a thing".

For example: "I'm thinking about transferring Bob to your department. I know the two of you used to date. Is this going to be a thing?"
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Old 01-14-2019, 06:36 PM
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As to what things were called before they were things I'd suggest zeitgeist. Not the original meaning of the term (as with meme), but the common modern usage is approximately the same meaning as in "X is a thing now".

Last edited by griffin1977; 01-14-2019 at 06:36 PM.
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Old 01-14-2019, 06:37 PM
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Not necessarily a problem, just a phenomenon.
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Old 01-14-2019, 06:48 PM
naita naita is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Little Nemo View Post
I believe that usage that the OP is asking about is when people call a potential problem as "a thing".

For example: "I'm thinking about transferring Bob to your department. I know the two of you used to date. Is this going to be a thing?"
As Inner Stickler's quote shows, not necessarily a problem. For your example the answer to the OP is "before they were called problems", for Inner Stickler's "an activity people do".

Or, as I wrote, "a thing" is a generic expression, and before it became a thing, people would use a more specific one.

"I keep hearing people say 'is this a thing', has 'a thing' become a generic idiom for any kind of phenomenon or issue?"
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Old 01-14-2019, 08:30 PM
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The relevant sense from the OED is:

"A genuine phenomenon, established practice, or discernible trend. Often in questions conveying surprise or incredulity (as is that (even) a thing?), or as an assertion, esp. responding to or pre-empting scepticism (as it’s a thing)."
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Old 01-14-2019, 08:41 PM
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There are several related senses in which "a thing" is used.

One of them used to be called a "fad."
"When did jumping out of a moving car and dancing become a [thing | fad]?"

Last edited by Alley Dweller; 01-14-2019 at 08:42 PM.
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Old 01-14-2019, 09:31 PM
HMS Irruncible HMS Irruncible is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by purplehorseshoe View Post
I'm old enough to remember encountering this phrase and thinking of it as a cute novelty. It's a useful term, but it's sort of meta that we didn't have a way to describe something being a thing before "being a thing" became a thing.

Or did we?
A thing is something like a phenomenon.
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Old 01-14-2019, 10:03 PM
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I suspect the phrase is likely to be a development of "thing is" constructions, which are used to explain that a particular problem or outcome is a consequence of a more generally prevailing circumstance or condition. ("I'd love to come to Paris with you but the thing is, I don't have any money.") Thing is constructions are long established in colloquial speech, but rare in writing. "Thing" here refers to an antecedent condition, something that already prevails, but we only have to take note of now. So "when did X become a thing?" means "when did X become so commonplace that we have to note it, take account of it or acknowledge it?"
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Old 01-14-2019, 10:26 PM
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Before there were things, there were deals, as in, "what's the deal with X?"

And when a deal became popular, it turned into a Big Deal.
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Old 01-14-2019, 11:52 PM
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1972 when Volkswagen introduced "The Thing" in the U.S.
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Old 01-15-2019, 12:11 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Alley Dweller View Post
There are several related senses in which "a thing" is used.

One of them used to be called a "fad."
"When did jumping out of a moving car and dancing become a [thing | fad]?"
I remember in the late 60's/early 70's, "That ain't my thing" or "That's my thing" being used before "bag" replaced thing. "That ain't my bag, man." or "That's my bag.".
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Old 01-15-2019, 12:16 AM
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There's a very common usage in fashion/beauty, "the latest thing in fashion," which also refers to a "phenomenon" or "trend." The use goes back at least to 1862(!!), where I found it in this article from Peterson's, regarding "the latest thing in opera cloaks."

There's a possible usage in a medical journal that goes back a little further, from the London Medical Gazette in 1842: "The late Doctor Warren told me that the use of opium was the latest thing he learned in practice." But I think the usage is ambiguous--the "latest thing" in this quote seems literal: the most recent process that Warren learned. Still, taking in the broader reading from the article itself, which is discussing the increasing use of certain procedures, it could also mean "phenomenon/trend."

So... let's say mid-1800s (in English) or possibly earlier?

Using the fashion connection, it also feels quite possible that it's a phrase that might be found in French that became translated into a more bland "thing" in English.

Last edited by choie; 01-15-2019 at 12:19 AM.
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Old 01-15-2019, 01:33 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by choie View Post
So... let's say mid-1800s (in English) or possibly earlier?
Well, we could go a couple centuries earlier, (and for the Dope, I'm a bit surprised that nobody has mentioned it yet):
There once was a fairly well-known guy who said: "the play's the thing".
(Hamlet,Act 2, Scene 2)


But that's not what the OP is asking.
The real answer is the 1990's, as explained in Andy L/s link above.
Before then, the word thing was used in many contexts, as other posts have mentioned.But not meaning "a new and previously unknown social phenomenon".

But the most important part of the OP's question isn't the word "thing'--it's the word "a".
The expression, using both words, became common in American speech during the 1990's.
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Old 01-15-2019, 01:39 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by chappachula View Post
Well, we could go a couple centuries earlier, (and for the Dope, I'm a bit surprised that nobody has mentioned it yet):
There once was a fairly well-known guy who said: "the play's the thing".
(Hamlet,Act 2, Scene 2)
He said "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king". That's quite a different usage - not "thing" as generally prevelant fad, trend, phenomenon, etc., but "thing" as in particular object that I will utilise for a stated purpose.
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Old 01-15-2019, 06:05 AM
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When I was younger, I remember the phrase "People do that?" or "Do people do that?"
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