What a Thing Is

April 25, 2009

Sometimes a word is just a word; one sound, one meaning is enough. There are no backstories, no tales of travel down odd byways.
No need to walk out along the word’s edge or backflip into its depth and watch the interesting old fish swim slowly by. Perhaps. I just haven’t found one yet.

Take thing. Or let it take you. Thing, the overused hyperbland generic of generics. The universal non-descript. The word that stands for everything, and anything. A place holder, a filler, a word your English teacher would cross out. “Be specific!” “Use picture words, sense words!” Any old thing. The thing is. He has a thing for her. There is going to be a thing. Thingamabob. Thingy. Thingamajig.

But take the shallowest of dives into thing and where are you but in a picture, and a very specific place, in medieval Iceland, and you are walking, not swimming, in a mass of people gathering in a great hall or outdoor amphitheater. The whole village has turned out, and the villages surrounding, and those farther afield. Some pressing matter is at hand, a big decision affecting everyone, perhaps a new law is being considered, or a new venture to Greenland is being planned, or violence has broken out between two communities, or a disease is ravaging the sheep — some matter (now there’s a word, matter) or matters of importance. And the way medieval democratic Icelanders made policy was through the ultimate Town Meeting, the Thing, the Althing. The Thing to which all were invited. In Old Norse and Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic languages, a thing or ting or ding was an assembly, a group of people called together to make decisions. And they did. And after a while the meaning of the word migrated, spread, from the deciders, the assembly, to the issues they were deciding or discussing. Things, as it turns out, decide things, talk about things, think about things. And released from its heavy booted palaverous root the meaning of thing spread rapidly in many semantic directions. A thing can be an object, an idea, a desire, even an unnamed body part and tool of desire. It can be of value, or an ideal, or a mere thing. There are even things that aren’t things (see the bumper sticker*). And a when a word can be what it isn’t …. that’s a truly wonderful word (and thing).

And, while we’re still in the shallows, swim over to England and the Husting, which is to say the House-Thing, the gathering of the King’s House, his ministers. The US President may have a Cabinet but the English King has a House-Thing. And follow Husting as its meaning shifts and sails the Atlantic, decapitalizes, democratizes, and enters the jargon of political campaigning, being used now to mean the places and platforms where candidates for election gather and where they travel, from husting to husting, stump to fat stump, delivering their speeches, and once in a while, hopefully, talking about real things.

Optional deeper dive for the thrill-seekers:

You may ask, “Well, that’s all fine and dandy, Mr. WordMan, but why was that heavy booted Icelandic assembly called a Thing to begin with? And why was it a Hus-ting and not a Hus-someting-else? Did they just pull ting out of ‘tin’ air?” No, they didn’t. This word is not just a word. There was a thing before the thing, below the ting, inside the ding, and though the deeper you dive the darker the waters the strange fish that floats by is our familiar friend time. The root of time and the root of thing turn out to be the same, two leaves on the same great tree. And this long before Einstein put time and space into one equation. It makes sense, of course, because you can’t actually have a grand meeting unless everyone shows up at the same time (and the same place). Which is exactly the earlier meaning of ding ting thing: appointed time. A point in time. A point and place where people gather to be counted, to talk, to decide. And a good time was had by all. Till next time.

* the bumper sticker reads “The best things in life aren’t things.”

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