WORD AND THING.

I’m currently reading The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, by the Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko, which I will be reporting on in due time; for now, I’ll just say that I’m impressed enough with it that it’s making me want to study Ukrainian. One thing I’ve learned so far in my dabbling is that the Ukrainian word for ‘thing’ is річ [rich], which is etymologically identical to Russian речь [rech'] ‘speech, way of speaking’; the Russian sense is the original Slavic one, and apparently Ukrainian and Belorussian got the meaning ‘thing’ from Polish rzecz. (This explains how the Polish word rzeczpospolita can be a calque from Latin res publica.) Carl Buck, in his Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, explains the Polish sense development thus: “Hence ‘subject matter’ and further generalization.” Googling for more information, I found in Folia Orientalia Vol. 39 (2003), page 215: “The etymological relation ‘saying, word > thing’ is common in many languages, e.g. Polish rzecz ‘thing’ going back to ‘saying, speech’.” But offhand I’m not coming up with other examples, though I’m sure there are some, so I’m throwing the floor open for suggestions.

Comments

  1. Tom Recht says:

    The same development occurred in Hebrew: davar, which in the Old Testament means ‘speech’ (from the root dbr ‘speak’), is the modern Hebrew word for ‘thing’.

  2. The Hindi बात, baat, means both word and thing also, as does the Panjabi ਗੱਲ, gaal, although neither is used very much to mean “thing”, outside of the “speech” context – baat karanaa and gaal karanaa both mean “to talk”.

  3. In Japanese, /koto/ can mean either “thing” or “speech.” I’m not sure what the latest word on the etymological relationship is.

  4. John Emerson says:

    Scandinavian and also Anglo-Saxon Ding (etc.) = “lawsuit, object of contention, topic in question, what is argued about”.
    In Chinese thing wu 物 in its first appearances seems to have meant “category of sacrificial object”, e.g. the cow, the horse, the dog, the grain, etc.

  5. Excellent examples all, and my, you people are fast!

  6. Tom Recht says:

    Scandinavian and also Anglo-Saxon Ding (etc.) = “lawsuit, object of contention, topic in question, what is argued about”.
    I wonder if this a calque of Romance cosa, chose ‘thing’ < Latin causa ‘lawsuit, etc.’?

  7. The Wikipedia page on 言霊 (the Japanese folk-belief in the literal power of words) claims that the two senses of koto (word, and thing) were once the same.

  8. John Emerson says:

    Tom: I have asked myself the same question.

  9. “Romance cosa, chose ‘thing’ cheez, perhaps there’s a PIE link?

  10. Somehow my last comment got mangled – I was wondering if there was a link between “chose” and चीज़ “cheez”, the common Hindi word for “thing”?

  11. The Wikipedia page on 言霊 (the Japanese folk-belief in the literal power of words) claims that the two senses of koto (word, and thing) were once the same.
    I don’t really buy that, though — it’s not as if 事 and 言 were in free variation in all cases. The fact that there was systematic differentiation between them strongly suggests to me that the two senses were understood to be separate thing. (The famous “kotoshironushi” example could just be ancient folk etymology at work.) It also seems unlikely to me that a word could just suddenly appear meaning both “a sign” and “a signified”.
    It seems likely to me that the word originally meant “speech” and then came to mean “thing (spoken of)” (even today /koto/ is generally reserved for abstract “things” and not physical objects) — but as far as I’m aware even that relationship hasn’t been proven — it’s probably just too old, too many centuries before Japonic languages started being recorded.

  12. Áhann Áhim says:

    I’m not sure that OE þing (not ding) necessarily arrived at its current meaning specifically through the sense of ‘topic discussed at an assembly’. It had a variety of meanings in Germanic – in Old Norse, þingr could refer both to legal assemblies and (in the plural) to costly goods. In OE, it already had the senses ‘object’ or ‘action’, as well as the various legal senses (‘assembly’, ‘principle’).
    ‘Topic’ shows up among the wide variety of senses this word has in old Germanic, but it doesn’t seem to hold a particularly important place in any of them. I’d be reluctant to take this somewhat marginal sense as key in its (prehistoric) semantic diversification.

  13. I thought English “thing,” Gutiska “þeihs,” etc. originally referred to tribal assemblies and diverged from there, didn’t they?

  14. Áhann Áhim says:

    Gothic þeihs means ‘time’ or ‘occasion’, the latter sense presumably developing into ‘occasion for meeting and discussing legal matters’ in N(&)W Germanic.
    I suppose I should mention that some of the verbal derivatives of þing do involve speech in a more central sense – the class II derived verb from it means ‘intercede, supplicate’ in OE, and ‘speak, pronounce upon’ in OHG. I’m still not sure this has anything to do with the sense ‘thing’, but those words are there.

  15. Green derives “þeihs” from “appointed time [for the tribal assembly" and "thing" from "subject [of the tribal assembly]” which seems more plausible to me since the original institution was in decline by the fourth century. Also “waihts” means “thing” and “razda” means “language” Do “razda” and its other Germanic forms parallel “rech’” and its other Slavic forms?

  16. John Emerson says:

    Per Clark Hall, AS “thingian”, the verb, means “beg, pray, ask, intercede for, come to terms, concliate, settle”.
    AS Thing means “thing, creature, object, property, cause, motive, reason, lawsuit, event, affair, act, deed, enterprise, contest, discussion, council, assembly.”
    http://lexicon.ff.cuni.cz/png/oe_clarkhall/b0311.png

  17. word & thing come together at the name, e.g. reification:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gestalt_psychology#Reification
    unsurprisingly, this road leads to korzybski:
    http://www.gestalt.org/alfred.htm

  18. Áhann Áhim says:

    Green does suggest that the ‘original’ meaning of *þingaz was ‘an assembly recurring at an appointed time’ (Language and History in the Germanic World, p. 35), but he shies away from the issue of whether the Gothic word should be derived from this, or whether it was expanded in meaning in branches other than Gothic. And he’s quite right not to worry too much about that – there’s nothing by which to judge whether the Gothic sense is original or a narrowing.
    I’m not sure about the idea that ‘the original institution [þing] was in decline by the fourth century’. Certainly generally speaking this isn’t true – ‘things’ continued in Scandinavia basically until the present day, and certainly lasted a lot longer on the Continent than the 4th century. Green attributes its breakdown to changes in Carolingean times, and the tradition lasted a lot longer than that in Frisia. It’s unclear what the Goths ever did, but presumably if they saw any great change there, it would be driven by the events of the 5th century.
    At any rate, in strictly chronological view, we have the sense ‘proper time’ from the 4th century (manuscript from the 6th), and the senses of ‘legal assembly, etc’ only appearing a few centuries later in OHG and OE texts.

  19. Trond Engen says:

    Bjorvand & Lindeman takes ting et al. as well as e.g. Eng. tight and Ger. gedeihen to be formed from a strong verb *þénhan- “grow; tighten”. They suggest “contraction” -&gt “gathering” as the origin of the assembly sense. They don’t say, but I’d say the sense “togetherness” -&gt “unit” could also lay behind the “object” meaning.
    But it seems that this relationship can arise in many ways. Even in Scandinavian it’s found in other words:
    Sak means “point on agenda; lawsuit, case” and also “thing”. Here the semantics goes “lawsuit” &lt- ” “search for justice” &lt- “search” -&gt “object of a search” -&gt “object”.
    Råd means “advice; council” but there’s also forråd “supplement” and (with influence from German) geråd “equipment”. I think the semantics goes “speech act” -&gt “opinion” -&gt “advice” -&gt “remedy” -&gt “equipment”.

  20. John Emerson says:

    I’d be curious to know the literary antecedents of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s hippieish “But do your thing, and I shall know you.” One I find is Chaucer’s “Ye been oure lord; dooth with youre owene thyng.”
    I have speculated that when someone says “You have another thing coming” for “You have another think coming” (which I believe is the original) you have a sort of sloppy overlap of two closely related words with different meanings and different pronunciations.

  21. JE, that’s a sentence fragment: he’s saying “Ye been oure lord; dooth with youre owene thyng / Right as yow list; axeth no reed at me”; i.e. “You are our lord; do with your own thing just as you want; ask no counsel of me”.

  22. It’s a good day for a writer when she learns a new word.
    Calque.

  23. when someone says “You have another thing coming” for “You have another think coming”
    I believe that people pronounce the latter with hardly any k sound, because of the k in “coming”; and then it sounds almost like “thing”.
    Much the same effect as when “for safety’s sake” or “for heaven’s sake” lose their ‘s.

  24. John Emerson says:

    People now spell it that way too, though.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    “You have another think coming”
    I don’t think I have ever seen this in writing – it was always “thing”.

  26. Are you sure you haven’t got those backwards? “Think” is traditional and tends to be enforced in printed material; Google Books finds about 7,200 hits for it and only 1,800 for “thing.” If you restrict the search to the 20th century, “think” gets about 4,700 hits and “thing” only 583. The untraditional form is clearly becoming more acceptable, but I find it hard to believe it’s the only one you’ve seen.

  27. John Emerson says:

    I hear “thing” more often than “think” now, probably because “think” is not usually a count noun. It’s funny because “You have another think coming” is sort of colloquial or slangy, whereas substituting “thing” bring it closer to common language.

  28. But it doesn’t make sense! That’s what I keep stubbing my brain on: “If you think that, you’ve got another think coming” is, as you say, slightly non-standard, but that’s what makes it funny, and the sense is obvious. But “you’ve got another thing coming”—what does that mean? A thing? What, a rock, a bottle of mayonnaise, a small asteroid? It just… doesn’t make sense!

  29. marie-lucie says:

    LH, I usually notice when I read words or usages I am unfamiliar with. I have of course read think as a verb countless times, but another think coming, not that I can remember in decades of hearing English all around me and reading it just about every day. I don’t recall anyone saying this either, but here I can’t be so certain: like other commenters, I could have been misled by the initial [k] of coming. You may be right about the origin, but not about the frequency, of thing here.
    As to the specific kind of thing that might be coming, it is undefined, just as in something else.

  30. John Emerson says:

    I think that people remember “you have another thing coming” as an idiom, without parsing it. A think is one kind of thing, after all. Anything is a thing. Everything is a thing. That’s the whole thing about “thing”.

  31. I’ve noticed that Hilary Mantel pronounces the name of her wonderful Booker-winning book, “Brin Gup The Bodies”. I think that’s a Cheshire – Liverpool thing.

  32. OED:
    to have another think coming : to be greatly mistaken. Cf. to have another thing coming at thing n.1 Phrases 15.
    1898 Syracuse (N.Y.) Standard 21 May 8/1 Conroy lives in Troy and thinks he is a corning fighter. This gentleman has another think coming.
    1942 T. Bailey Pink Camellia xxvii. 199 If you think you can get me out of Gaywood, you have another think coming.
    2002 Independent 29 Aug. 17/7 If he thinks he will be blissfully free of directives and paperwork, he has another think coming.
    First cite for to have another thing coming is from 1906 (G. Wilshire Wilshire Editorials 214 “Now if we should try and think up some one person who is satisfied with the existing order of things.., we would most likely have thought that we should find him in the editor of the Wall Street Journal. But if we did, then we have another thing [1904 Wilshire's Mag. think] coming”), which I must say is astonishingly early, but still a secondary formation.

  33. John Emerson says:

    How about this: the “thing” version is secondary, and the “think” version is the original. The “think” version was a somewhat creative or playful or innovative use of language, meant for effect, since “think” is seldom a noun. The “thing” version appeared because 1.) “thing” is normally a noun, and as it happens, a noun which can stand for other nouns, including “think”; and 2.) for phonological reasons the word “think” can be pronounced much like “thing” in the phrase “think coming”.
    And then, as I have speculated, 3.) at some depth of linguistic history “thing” and “think” are cognate, and maybe somewhere in the reptile brain this is a factor.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    Excellent summary, JE.
    As for the second paragraph, I agree that the two words are probably cognate, but I don’t think that has been a factor ever since the two words went their separate ways hundreds of years ago. Unlike phonological evolution, which causes the same sounds to evolve in parallel in semantically diverse words, semantic evolution rarely involves more than one word at a time once the meanings of genetically related words have started to diverge.

  35. J.W. Brewer says:

    Quoth wikipedia: The [Judas Priest] song’s title is an eggcorn idiom,[2][3] in use since at least 1919,[4] from the original expression, “You’ve got another think coming,” published as early as 1898.[5] I guess the OED is ahead of them on the “thing” variant.

  36. “think” is seldom a noun
    I’d say it’s pretty common to “have a think” about something but it’s unusual to use “the think”, for some reason, except in reference to the indefinitely articled think you’d had earlier, for example: “I had a drink and a think, but the think wasn’t productive”.

  37. My late father occasionally used to say “have another think coming”, and for many years I heard it as “thing”. Yet I thought of him as a very careful speaker.
    In related news, he used to find that people sometimes misheard his surname, failing to hear the initial hard “G” because it got mixed up with a “k” at the end of his first name.

  38. For me, the phrase another think coming is an allusion to the fuller form If that’s what you think, you’ve got another think coming. Clearly this cannot be so for the thing-coming crowd.

  39. marie-lucie says:

    As one who always read and heard (or interpreted) “another thing coming”, I thought that the meaning was If that’s what you think, you are in for a shock when you find out the truth.
    ON the analogy of “have a look”, I have occasionally heard “have a listen”, but never “have a think”.

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