A Meditation upon Things in which I will briefly speak of the Icelandic Parliament, “creature features” of the 1960’s, Cicero, Duke Ellington, Shakespeare and excessive pedantry.
The Wall Street Journal yesterday had a short piece by James R. Hagerty that raised my ire: “Use More Expressive Words!” Teachers Bark, Beseech, Implore. The article describes teachers who have banned certain words from student assignments, like “go,” “said” and “good” because they are considered insufficiently expressive. This attitude is not new, of course. It certainly existed when I was a young student. I suspect it was first promoted by Peter Mark Roget’s publisher, to spur sales.
Among the condemned is the word “thing.” I’d like to make a plea, if one can be entertained at this late date, for full pardon, and show that “thing,” like all words (even big words) can be used in insipid ways by mediocre authors, it is also capable of great delicacy, truly a word to be cherished, not discarded.
Let’s start with a simple, familiar example, the legendary song, “It don’t mean a thing (if it ain’t got that swing)” with music by Duke Ellington, words by Irving Mills. How can one write this without using “thing” or “anything”? We could try, “Your music will not have popular or critical acclaim if it lacks rhythmic syncopation in the current vernacular,” but this is hardly an improvement.
Of course, we don’t need to stray from the King’s English to have a fling with a thing. The Bard himself used this forbidden word to good effect, in Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 1, where Marcellus berates the hoi polloi for turning out for Caesar’s triumph: “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!”
It is worth mentioning, in passing, that Caesar himself would have been familiar with “thing” in its Latin form, “res”. In Latin the term has a dual meaning, “thing” but also “affair” or “deed.” So his adopted nephew, Octavian would later have inscribed in bronze his “Res Gestae Divi Augusti” (Things Accomplished of the Divine Augustus). One of Caesar’s enemies, Marcus Cicero, wrote a book called De Re Publica or “of the public thing”, maybe better translated as “concerning public affairs” or, in the word as it has come down to us, “On the Republic.”
Some of that flavor lingers on in English today. You might say you cannot accept an invitation because, “I have a thing next week.” The British English (forgive the redundancy) “husting” (what Americans might call a “stump speech”) was literally the “house thing” or a small deliberative assembly. In modern Icelandic (forgive the oxymoron) they have the Althing or “all thing”, their legislative general assembly.
“A thing may be incredible and still be true; sometimes it is incredible because it is true,” as Herman Melville said. Well before Melville, and well after, things that go bump in the night have been called…well…things.
Consider Hamlet, Act I, Scene 1: “What, ha’s this thing appear’d againe to night?” And then consider all the horrible horror movies that haunted movie screens (and UHF television channels) in decades long past, such as:
- The Thing from Another World (1951)
- The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958)
- Godzilla versus the Thing (1964)
- Zontar: The Thing from Venus (1966)
- The Thing with Two Heads (1972)
Thus the case for thing. Perhaps you care to suggest some other examples that illustrate the versatility and vigor of “thing”?
There are other words that the pedants despise that I contrariwise cherish. Perhaps, next time I will give a few thoughts on another word that has “the right stuff.”