When did “a thing” become a thing?

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Alexander Stern, “Is That Even a Thing?“, NYT 4/16/2016:

Speakers and writers of American English have recently taken to identifying a staggering and constantly changing array of trends, events, memes, products, lifestyle choices and phenomena of nearly every kind with a single label — a thing. In conversation, mention of a surprising fad, behavior or event is now often met with the question, “Is that actually a thing?” Or “When did that become a thing?” Or “How is that even a thing?” Calling something “a thing” is, in this sense, itself a thing.

Stern gestures in the direction of thing‘s history:

The word “thing” has of course long played a versatile and generic role in our language, referring both to physical objects and abstract matters. “The thing is …” “Here’s the thing.” “The play’s the thing.”

But he doesn’t ask the obvious question: When did a thing become a thing?

The OED’s entry for thing was updated in 2008, and includes many fascinating examples, of which my favorite is

1769   J. Pettingal Use & Pract. Juries among Greeks & Romans i. 61   What the Greeks called πραγμα a Cause, the Saxons and Danes called a Thing or litigated Cause; the Lawyers Thingmen, a Judge Thingrave.

But as far as I can tell on a quick read of a very long entry, there’s nothing on the “even a thing” idiom.

There’s a long history of examples in which thing is post-modified, e.g. from Chaucer

But this is a thing that greetly smerteth me whan it remembreth me.

The innovation, then, is just to omit the post-modifier, with obvious ontological implications. Or maybe the source is phrases like “a guy thing”, or “not my thing”, or … But whatever the source, who had the idea of making a thing a thing, and where and when?

I don’t have time this morning for a serious search, but on a quick scan, the first possible example that I’ve found is in a web forum query from November of 2002:

What actually ‘is’ a flame?  is it the em radiation emitted by burning gas? Or what? Is a flame actually a ‘thing’.

The earliest unambiguous example I found is from 2004 — Michael Russell, “An interview with Cintra Wilson“, Bookslut 9/2004:

I don’t think people in the rest of the country realize that when you’re a girl growing up in San Francisco, gay boys naturally comprise about 30 percent of your friend-base from the time you are in, like, 7th grade. It’s not even a thing. You don’t even think about it.

By 2009, the idiom is clearly well established — Kyle Munzenrieder, “This Cuchini Camel Toe Pad Is a Thing, Unfortunately“, Miami New Times, 5/1/2009:

[S]ometimes a product goes viral for all the wrong reasons and leaves us thinking, OMG, why is this even a thing? Like, seriously.

No doubt commenters will be be able to do some serious antedating, and perhaps also identify the cultural context where the idiom germinated.

Update — there’s a discussion from a couple of months ago on english.stackexchange.com, which references a Lingua Franca column by Ben Yagoda, “I Guess ‘It’s a Thing’” (12/13/2012), which found this dialogue fragment from a 2001 episode of That ’70s Show:

DONNA: Oh! That’s 16 for me and Hyde and four for the losers! You guys ought to get a mascot … a big, green, furry loser!

ERIC: That’s That’s not even a thing.

And in the comments, mollymooly observes that “The longer variant “[it/that] is [not even] a real thing” may be older”, citing an example from 1995.

__

Update — in the comments, James Barrett points us to a video from the Royal Society that includes the following passage from a letter, dated 1783, from one Eberhard Johann Schröter in St. Petersburg, addressed to Dr. Daniel Solander, an associate of Sir Joseph Banks:

If any body could be thoroughly convinced that a prediction of winds is a thing and possible and real, then to such a person a proper classification of them would be useful.

(This letter was selected to be read because its card was the very last item in the card catalogue of the Royal Society’s library.)

This citation suggests that the “is a thing” usage has always been Out There in platonic Idiom World, and may have been incarnated many times through history before it finally caught the memetic brass ring.



68 Comments

  1. CL Thornett said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 6:55 am

    Top of my head: could this use have developed from ‘to have a thing about’?

  2. Michael P said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 6:56 am

    I think that the 2002 usage is not part of the same idiom, but rather a question as to whether a flame is a discrete object.

    I suspect that the modern idiom is closely related to the idiom (according to Urban Dictionary, from at least March 2004) “ain’t no thang”. The September 2004 quote seems like a transitional form.

  3. Shauna said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 7:09 am

    I first noticed its usage on 30 Rock.

  4. Charles in Waterloo said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 7:10 am

    I would add that 30 Rock (which first aired in 2006) made heavy use of “is that (even) a thing” and was still on air when social media started to get huge.

    See also here: http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2012/12/13/i-guess-its-a-thing/

  5. Stan Carey said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 7:18 am

    A couple of years ago I asked a similar question. Maybe wondering when be(come) a thing became a thing is becoming a thing.

  6. Jon Harley said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 7:27 am

    The phrase was used constantly in the TV series “The West Wing”, eg:

    Pilot episode (22 Sep 1999): “Didn’t you two used to be a thing?”

    Episode 1.5 (22 Oct 1999) “Actually you’ve got a thing right now.”

    Episode 1.6 (3 Nov 1999) “So this is gonna be a thing!”

    etc.etc.

    [(myl) These seem to be different things — the first one is related to OED sense 4.f “colloq. A love affair, a romance”, and means “used to be a couple”; while the second one (without looking at the context) seems to mean something like “you’ve got an meeting”. The third might be relevant, though from a glance at the context, it seems to mean something like “this is gonna be an issue”.]

  7. Ari Corcoran said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 7:35 am

    Although rendered as “Gimme dat ding”, it was a song from Dr Hook in the 1970s, with no apparent definition of what “dat ding” was.

    [(myl) This is presumably an instance of OED sense 11.c “euphem. The genitals”.]

  8. Greg V. said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 7:43 am

    I remember (but Google does not) a recurring feature on Late Night with David Letterman in the mid-eighties called “Thing/Not a Thing,” which I may be conflating with the famous other recurring Letterman feature “Stupid Human Tricks.” As I remember it, someone would come out from behind a curtain and perform a pointless stunt. Letterman would then say to Paul Shaffer, “What do you think, Paul? Is that a thing?” And Shaffer would say, i.e., “I don’t think that’s a thing, Dave.” Can anyone corroborate this?

  9. Careless said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 8:18 am

    […] Log’s latest on this usage, with links to 12 older ones. I kid you not. It’s quite a thing. […]

  10. Joseph F Foster said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 8:42 am

    When I was a boy back in the ’40’s and ’50’s, in NE Logan Country, Arkansas, you could hear commonly asked: “What for a thing is that?’, meaning usually ‘What kind of a device, apparatus, …. is that?” The phrase could be used as a request for a specific from a generic, as in “What for a bird is that?” I only later learned that it was apparently a direct loan translation from German Was für ein Ding / Vogel ist das? ‘What for a thing / bird is that?’ and that this was common in idiomatic colloquial German. That English subdialect was heavily influenced from German settler farmers and shopkeepers who moved in after the War Between the States, and who, as Michael Geis once succinctly put it, got rich before they had learned English well and so didn’t have to.

  11. Greg V. said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 8:51 am

    Oops, I withdraw my earlier comment: the Letterman bit was called “Is This Anything,” and the terms were ‘something” or “nothing.” Sorry to muddy the waters.

  12. _NL said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 8:54 am

    I also use it in a slightly different formulation, almost always sarcastically. For example: “Trump couldn’t do that, because the Constitution’s a thing.” Or maybe: “don’t drive so close to the edge of the cliff, because the law of gravity is a thing.” Or: “I can’t believe he talks to his wife like that, because feminism is a thing that exists.”

    Rather than the focus on surprise at something existing (“how is this a thing?” or “is that even a thing?”) the focus is being shocked that somebody acts apparently as though something doesn’t exist (“gravity is a thing”).

  13. kktkkr said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 8:58 am

    Well okay, but why is “a thing” still a thing?
    (And why is “still a thing” a thing?)

  14. _NL said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 9:03 am

    Addendum to above: I think this is a slightly different way of saying “is thing.” I used it not that long ago from Trader Joe’s. I texted my girlfriend “Spekuloos cream cheese is a thing.” It was meant both incredulously and adoringly.

    I googled “a thing that exists” and the top two results were “So, Peeps Milk Is A Thing That Exists – BuzzFeed” and “Weed-Infused Vodka Is a Thing That Exists | Complex.” The fourth result was “The Beer Briefcase Is A Thing That Exists | OhGizmo!”

  15. Chris said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 9:03 am

    I first heard a variation of this in the 80’s with “it’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand”

    Googling I found “ain’t nothin but a thing” was slang used by the US military in Vietnam, unclear what it means. Probably “I’m not going to worry about it sarge”.

  16. S. Norman said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 9:12 am

    It’s the Pipkins:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gimme_Dat_Ding

  17. John Baker said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 9:37 am

    I’m inclined to think that the origin is the longer variant, “[it/that] is [not even] a real thing,” which I consider a transparent collocation rather than a distinctive use. As such, it is much older. For example, from Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma: “One good thing was immediately brought to a certainty by this removal,–the ball at the Crown. It had not been forgotten before; but it has been soon acknowledged vain to attempt to fix a day. Now, however, it was absolutely to be . . . Mr. Weston’s ball was to be a real thing.”

    Here’s another example, from the poem The Iceberg, by J.O. Rockwell, https://books.google.com/books?id=dmwYAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA197&lpg=PA197&dq=j.o.+rockwell+poet&source=bl&ots=9oyiF33FMC&sig=xU-clOpcJNwQpeY4Rl_j5jLDj64&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjHrJH-s5jMAhWB7R4KHdiQCGYQ6AEILjAD#v=onepage&q=a%20real%20thing&f=false; I’m not sure of the date, but it’s certainly no later than 1832: “And we dared not think it [i.e., the iceberg] a real thing, but for the rustling wave.”

  18. Victor Mair said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 9:38 am

    From my sister Heidi:

    We were all saying that in the 80’s and 90’s, meaning did you just make it up or is it a trend I know nothing about.

    [(myl) Then there ought to be some examples in screenplays or novel dialog from that era. So far, I can’t find any.]

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 10:43 am

    The “ain’t no thang” type of usage (which may relate to the Vietnam-era military usage mentioned upthread) is something I’ve been aware of back to probably at least the 1980’s, but as (in my experience, which may not be universal) a marked AAVEism which remained marked-as-such (and thus would generally come off as hipster affectation and/or as vaguely condescending) in the mouths of white speakers. The 30-Rock kind of usage by contrast seems like something I began noticing (and eventually to some degree using) only within the last decade and which totally lacks that racial markedness. It never struck me as an outgrowth of the earlier racially-marked “thang” usage, although I guess it well might be. But if so I would like to see some transitional examples of it in the process of crossing the racial divide and losing that markedness.

  20. Linda Seebach said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 10:46 am

    My sense is close to Victor Mair’s. Is whatever you are commenting about unique, or is it a member of a category of such ? That is, a category fairly widely recgnized but which you are encountering for the first time. “You mean that’s common?”

    [(myl) That’s what the phrase means. The question is, when and where did people start using it?]

  21. Adrian Riskin said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 11:21 am

    July 26, 2000:

    http://www.greekchat.com/gcforums/archive/index.php/t-2302.html

    In regards to head shots, recs, etc. Before you go out and do this, check to see if this is even a thing at your school.

  22. cameron said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 11:35 am

    Heidegger’s book Die Frage nach dem Ding was translated into English as What Is A Thing?. That curious title has always made it one of the books that has received the most comments from people seeing my personal library for the first time.

    It’s actually a good book, but the title is quite misleading. Heidegger doesn’t really discuss “things” at all in that work. That book is really just an explication of some aspects of Kant’s philosophy, preceded by an essay on the theme of mathesis in pre-Kantian modern philosophy.

  23. Sniffnoy said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 12:04 pm

    Note that there seem to be several different meanings here. As Michael P already noted, in some contexts “thing” here means “a physical object”. But the main two seem to be “thing” meaning “real thing” or “thing that exists” (as in “gravity is a thing” or “a big green furry loser is not even a thing”), and “thing” meaning “socially recognized phenomenon” (as in most of the other examples here).

  24. M Word said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 12:31 pm

    I don’t agree with the Stern article when it gets to this quote: “It seems likely that “a thing” comes from the phrase the coolest/newest/latest thing. But now, in a society where everything, even the past, is new — “new thing” verges on the redundant. If they weren’t new they wouldn’t be things.”

    Rather, it seems to me the question “Is that a thing?” means “Is that an /established/ cultural phenomenon?” Wearing white on your wedding day is “a thing.” It doesn’t imply newness at all.

  25. Chris said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 1:40 pm

    This was a big part of Paul Reiser’s stand up act in the 1980s, and definitely in his TV show “Mad About You (1992-1999). In fact, his Twitter bio actually says:

    “You know… The guy from the thing with the thing…. Yes you do. Yes you do.” (https://twitter.com/PaulReiser)

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a Yiddish equivalent that was borrowed in to English. Look to Borscht Belt comedy for origins, if you want my advice.

    But wait! There’s also a tradition in mafia parodies, such as this short scene from 1999’s Analyze This

    De Niro: “Did you take care of the second thing?”
    Mafia guy: “I gotta wait for the first thing to come through before I can take care of the second thing.”

    So, Borscht Belt, or mafia parodies. Both were big before 21st century.

  26. Chris said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 1:42 pm

    Upon reflection, my references above might not be the same usage as the post refers to. Might be some historical connection, though.

  27. Eric said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 2:03 pm

    I agree with several commenters about “a thing” just referring something that exists. Speaking as a 25-year-old native user of “a thing,” it means something like an established custom, even if only marginally. Talking about mundane things being a thing actually feels stilted to me; rather, I’d be MUCH more likely to say something isn’t a thing. If I’m calling something a thing, it’s in the “so this is a thing now” tone that implies we wouldn’t expect this thing to be commonplace but apparently we’re gonna have to get used to it. Like (I remember actually saying this not long ago) “Placenta pizza is a thing,” by which I meant not really that it was common per se, but that it’s not a new idea if you do it: there’s a demographic that does it and you can google recipes of it.

    Like in M Word’s example, for me to refer to wearing white on your wedding as a thing, I would need some context like a friend talking about her creative wedding brainstorming etc etc, going on about her daring white dress, and I’d say “Um, you know wearing white on your wedding is like, a thing?” as if to say “That’s not a new idea; in fact, it’s what practically everyone does.”

    Not that this contributes necessarily to the phrase’s origin, but a lot of the commentary seemed just slightly off the mark from the way I use it and hear it used. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t feel like I’m abbreviating anything when I use the phrase. A thing is just…a thing. Meaning, if it’s NOT a thing, then your doing/saying it is the first time it’s existed, at least that’s the feeling anyway, generally. Placenta pizza doesn’t have to be common or popular or yummy, but it IS a thing, because it’s a thing that’s already been established and taken as a given by at least some people. You can be wrong about thing-ness: if you say placenta pizza’s not a thing and then I google it and show you, you’d be obliged to admit that it must be a thing, unfortunately. It’s not about popularity or approval. To be honest, this phrase just seems like a natural extension of thing’s basic meaning.

    Just my two cents about how it feels in my mouth and ears.

  28. M.N. said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 3:20 pm

    Coincidentally, from today’s Numberphile: “Stop trying to make ‘Parker square’ a thing!” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOT_bG-vWyg)

    My use of ‘a thing’ is a lot like Eric’s, above. I also use it to mean “a thing that’s happening in the future”. That is, if we’ve been thinking about doing something, and then concrete plans are made, it’s become a thing.

    A: We can talk about this further at the party on Sunday.
    B: Oh, so that’s a thing? Awesome!

    I’ve also found myself using “that could be a thing” to mean that something would work (in the future), or is a good idea.

    I’m not sure if the “existence” and “social phenomenon” interpretations are really two separate meanings — to me, existing as a social phenomenon seems like just a way that something can exist. I can say “Speaking in tongues is a thing” just as well as “Speaking in tongues is not a thing”; but it strikes me that I’m using ‘speaking in tongues’ to mean two different things there, not ‘a thing.’

    Speaking in tongues is a thing because you can go out into the world and find people performing a ritual that they describe as speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues is not a thing because what’s described as “speaking in tongues” is merely glossolalia.

  29. Brett said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 4:29 pm

    I got familiar with the usage some time when I was at MIT (1995-2003), but I couldn’t say more precisely than that. However, I remember I was quite familiar with it by the time 30 Rock went on the air, but until the show made it famous, “Is that a thing?” seemed to be something that was restricted to a particular corner of nerd or Internet culture.

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 5:12 pm

    My unlikely theory is that it came from the academic use of “reification”.

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 5:31 pm

    More seriously, as “meme” moves to “picture with droll caption”, how close is this meaning of “thing” to the original sense of “meme”?

  32. ohwilleke said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 5:46 pm

    I do not think that the 2001 or 2002 examples in the original post are within the new construction.

    Also M. Word accurately captures the meaning while many of the other examples do not.

  33. Roscoe said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 7:33 pm

    Sounds ever so slightly like the old Milt Gross-ism “Is dis a system?”:

    http://www.pseudopodium.org/ht-20011119.html#2001-12-23

  34. David P said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 8:33 pm

    “Is that even a word?” seems more familiar to me than “Is that even a thing?” Perhaps one usage bled into the other. But I would have guessed that both were older than the past decade.

  35. Robert Ayers said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 8:41 pm

    Scientists, especially physicists, use “a thing” with the meaning “a real object, as opposed to a phenomenon”. For example: “A cloud is not a thing.”

    What this means is that the cloud that you see, perhaps over a mountain, is not a (large) fixed collection of atoms, but is an appearance. In the case of a mountain cloud, the air is flowing over the mountain, and as it is forced to rise it cools and water condenses and it becomes opaque. Then, on the far side, as the air falls, it warms and the cloudiness disappears. So “the cloud” is a phenomenon. It is not a fixed mass of air — it is not a thing.

  36. Jason said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 9:21 pm

    @Chris

    Of course “La Cosa Nostra” simply means “Our thing”.

  37. George Grady said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 9:40 pm

    It seems similar to the usage of “thing” in the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing”, which came out in 1969,

  38. michael said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 10:17 pm

    Or one year later, in 1970, with Funkadelic’s song “I Got A Thing” :)

  39. andyb said,

    April 18, 2016 @ 11:06 pm

    My recollection is that this was a Usenet thing in the mid/late 90s, originally coming out of one of the silly groups, I think alt.alien.vampire.flonk.flonk.flonk.

    Something like this: People on one of the serious groups (maybe alt.religion.buddhism?) were having a serious discussion about whether a rock is a thing that appears to exist or a thing that exists. Mad Hatter or one of his friends thought the phrasing was hilarious, and posted a parody to alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die asking whether Barney is a thing that exists. As usual, this started a flamewar between the people who wanted to keep abdddd purely devoted to plotting Barney’s death and those who wanted to use it for all kinds of silly purposes. After that, the denizens of aavfff started using “is that a thing that exists” all the time, which eventually shortened to “is that a thing”, with the same meaning it has today. Including people asking when “is that a thing” became a thing. Of course they got bored with it, but their frequent crossposts to other groups spread the phrase around widely, and it gradually leaked out from Usenet to the internet and then reality.

    Unfortunately, since Google broke their deja Usenet search last year, I have absolutely no idea how to check my recollection.

    I also remember hearing “is that (even) a thing?” on TV well before That 70s Show, and thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe that made it to network TV.” I think it an Aaron Sorkin show; maybe Sports Night? I have a feeling I’m mixing up two scenes here, possibly even from two different shows… but if not, it went something like this:

    Guy 1: There’s such a thing as street cred.
    Guy 2: Is that still even a thing?
    Guy 1: So is that a thing now, asking whether something is still even a thing?
    Guy 2: It’s as much a thing as your street cred.
    Guy 1: So I have street cred?
    Guy 2: No. Street cred isn’t a thing. Rep is a thing now. People have rep. Not you, but other people.

    But of course Google won’t let me search for my paraphrased bad attempt at Sorkin writing, only for the actual Sorkin lines, which I don’t remember. Plus, again, I think I’m mixing up two scenes.

    Meanwhile, from what I’ve heard about MIT in the late 90s, I have no problem believing that Brett was hearing net-slang IRL.

  40. AntC said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 2:34 am

    @Ari Corcoran, @myl, @S Norman is right: it’s dat ding, being what a metronome gives you. Not a thing atall.

  41. John Walden said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 2:35 am

    “It’s a Love Thing” The Whispers (1980).

  42. John Walden said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 2:39 am

    Double post, sorry.

    Then there’s Heidegger: “Das Ding dingt”, but it don’t think it could be that. I’m just showing off.

  43. Rodger C said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 6:50 am

    Me wearð Grendles þing
    On minre eðeltyrf undyrne cuð.

  44. Jeffry House said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 7:22 am

    “Cosa Nostra” : Valachi hearings, 1963.

  45. Alon Lischinsky said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 9:26 am

    From the Gray Lady, April 12, 1998: “In Japan, winning isn’t everything, and it isn’t the only thing; in elementary schools it isn’t even a thing at all.

    This seems at least transitional towards the modern idiom.

  46. Lane said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 10:07 am

    The “litigated Cause” thing now makes me realize why the Scandinavian parliaments are called Folketing (People’s Thing, Denmark), Storting (Great Thing, Norway) and so on. Scratching that off my list of things I’ve always wondered and never had the time to look up.

    [(myl) I was disappointed to realize that thingrave = “judge” is thing+grave, not thing+rave. (And of course that’s grave in the sense “person placed in charge”, not “place of burial”. So unfortunately John Roberts is not the current chief thing-rave of the U.S. Supreme Court. Nor is he even the court’s chief place of burial.]

  47. mollymooly said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 10:22 am

    “Sid and Elsie” by Benari Poulten of Brandeis University won the 1999 Mark Twain Prize for Comic Playwriting; page 9 has a discussion of what “a thing” means.

  48. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 11:32 am

    We don’t use “thing” for “litigated cause” in English because the English legal profession was Francophone for several centuries after 1066. The equivalent French loanword “chose” remains to this day extant in Legalese-English in that sense. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chose

  49. Michael said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 12:32 pm

    [(myl) Then there ought to be some examples in screenplays or novel dialog from that era. So far, I can’t find any.]

    It’s an interesting point, that. I can distinctly remember the first time my Portland roommate said to me, “Is that really a thing?” in 1993. As a New Yorker, I thought it was one of the funniest turns of phrase I’d ever heard, and I can remember the year because I only lived with that person for a short period of time. Presumably, they learned it from their social circles in Central California.

    But, how long does it actually take a regionalism like that to hit the mainstream? When does it show up in print or film (and which first)? That’s a tough question. For scientific purposes, my anecdote is pretty much useless, I get that (as are those of others), and yet…perhaps this is an example of something that needed a decade or more of popular use before it was picked up and recorded anywhere. It’s hard to say.

  50. andyb said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

    I found a site with all the Sports Night transcripts, and they play with the word “thing” a lot, in various clever ways, some of which do seem close to the idiom, but none are quite it. For example, from episode 2-22, “There’s such a thing as a good tape dispenser?” There’s also “then it became a thing”, “it’s now a thing that happened”, “I think there’s a residual top 100 thing going on”, etc. They talk about things being/not being/becoming things in various senses, but never quite assert that or question whether something is (even) a thing in the sense of being part of social reality.

    On the other hand, West Wing, Sorkin’s next show, has lines like “Did you know leaf peeping was a thing?”, which does seem like exactly the idiom. (On the Lingua Franca comments, mkfox already turned up a few examples from the show.) So, I think I was mixing up Sports Night and West Wing.

    I don’t think the Assassins quote from 1995 qualifies. The sentence “It’s a real thing” could be used to make the same kind of assertion we’re talking about here, but it isn’t being used that way in that scene. It’s related, but not the same. But the fact that it’s about mad hatters, and the Usenet thing I remember involved a net.personality named Mad Hatter, is one hell of a coincidence.

  51. David said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 1:20 pm

    This often seems to be equivalent to asking whether something is the “in thing” to do or attend or wear… One is asking whether some trend is still a trend (especially when couched as “is that a thing anymore”. In other words, it suggests a kind of abbreviating of “in thing” and possibly a widening of ‘in thing’, i.e. trend, to ‘anything that is even a blip on the cultural and social horizon’.

    [(myl) The OED has “quite the thing” from 1800:

    1800 E. Hervey Mourtray Family I. 183 He is quite the thing; the go in every respect.

    And “the done thing” from 1917:

    1917   Friends’ Intelligencer 3 Nov. 697/1   A lot of us are threatening to sleep out on deck to-night. It’s quite the ‘done thing’.

    The earliest citation for “the in thing” is 1976, though surely the expression existed earlier:

    1976   R. M. Stern Will ii. 15   On the study wall in a plain wood frame were the connected, signature-scrawled dollar bills..called short-snorters, or some such silly name. ‘They were the in thing,’ his father had told him…

    Like many of the other expressions discussed in the post and comments, these are lurking in the background of “a thing”, but they’re not the same.]

  52. Jenny said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 5:45 pm

    In Season 8 of Doctor Who, in the episode “Flatline,” the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) used “a thing” in this way. He was trying to figure out the episode’s threat, and said, “This explains everything. They’re from a universe with only two dimensions. And yes, that is a thing! It’s long been theorized, of course, but no one could go there and prove its existence without a heck of a diet.”

    Clearly, he meant that it was a known, established idea, and not a random guess on his part.

  53. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 7:12 pm

    Nominee for another lurking-in-the-background usage that may be older. I noticed myself yesterday unselfconsciously setting up a substantive point in an informal online context by introducing it with a low-content idiomatic fixed phrase, namely “OK, but here’s the thing. SUBSTANTIVE POINT.” That’s not quite the same as the “X is apparently a thing / is Y even a thing” type of usage, but somehow seems semantically nearby.

  54. Rebecca said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 8:02 pm

    Another one lurking in the area is “the next big thing”, eg,
    https://books.google.com/books?id=qFNIAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA480&dq=%22the+next+big+thing%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjQ7M6VgZzMAhWivIMKHUS0Ah8Q6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=%22the%20next%20big%20thing%22&f=false

  55. January First-of-May said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 8:58 pm

    Just did a Google search of “even a thing” for 1900-1999. Almost nothing useful (either different meanings, or mis-dated uses from much later).

    Perhaps the closest is NYT, “Uncompetitive in Tokyo”, April 12, 1998: “In Japan, winning isn’t everything, and it isn’t the only thing; in elementary schools it isn’t even a thing at all.”
    It’s kind of obvious what happened here, but the result is extremely close to the modern expression; it might well be that the origin of the modern expression was similar.

  56. peter said,

    April 19, 2016 @ 11:56 pm

    Physicist Gerhard Mack once tried to answer Kant’s question, What is a thing?, by describing a thing as an object in an appropriate category (in the mathematical sense of category theory). While this could seem banal, it actually provides a possible explanation of what is happening with the usage of “thing” in, “Is that a thing now?” The questioner is perhaps really asking: Is there a category in which this entity is an object?

    Gerhard Mack [1994]: Gauge theory of things alive and universal dynamics DESY 94-184 (Oct. 94), short version in Nucl. Phys. (Proc. Suppl.) B42 (1995) 923.

  57. peter said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 12:02 am

    I have worked with New Yorkers since 1985, and noticed immediately the usage, “Here’s the thing.” It still strikes me as an odd expression, and I still do not know when it is appropriate to say it.

  58. Zizoz said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 12:48 am

    I don’t think the Cintra Wilson example in the original post is actually an example of this usage. There “a thing” means something unusual, that would be cause for comment. That’s nearly the opposite of the new usage, where “a thing” is something, if not necessarily common, at least heard-of. In this sense, teenage girls in San Fransisco having many gay male friends certainly is a thing.

    What I notice that is similar between the two meanings, though, is that they both distinguish between things and non-things, as opposed to in things and out things, big things and small things, etc.

  59. empty said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 2:58 pm

    Here are two examples. I think that each of them would have been inconceivable a few decades ago. Neither one is a statement about trends.

    From maybe five to ten years ago, in a homework solution for an advanced mathematics course, giving the punchline of a proof-by-contradiction in a particularly casual way: “But infinite linear combinations aren’t a thing.”

    From a day or two ago on Facebook: “Virginity isn’t a thing.”

  60. January First-of-May said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 10:00 am

    Further Google search does find a promising example that looks like it’s pre-2000:

    “It’s quite an episode; every time I’m there, it looks like a peacock exploded in his shop. It’s all to serve as a contrast to what Bob does, and it’s become a thing now. People expect you to wear it, even when you’re not on the show. And you can’t wear that in public.”
    (A.V. Club interview with Rod Roddy, January 22, 1997)

    I can’t find any Wayback Machine versions that go before 2005 (the pre-2005 A.V. Club site structure was ridiculous), but the interview does seem legitimate (as much as an Onion-originating item can), and does appear to be from January 1997.

    Of course, given the previous comments, the phrase is likely far older. But – at least, this side of Usenet – we’re unlikely to find online results from much before 1997.

  61. January First-of-May said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 10:30 am

    Oops. And just on the next page of Google results, a (supposedly) 1975 interview with Harry K. Trent:

    “So anyway, this man Melhado, he conceived the idea of this Christmas City bit and as you can see, it’s quite a thing now.”

    I’m not sure if this “quite a thing” is the same idiom as the modern phrase, but it’s certainly very similar.

    Here’s another example, from a bit later but still very early:

    “”It’s turned into quite a monster of a thing now,” said Hayes, 50, a teacher at Leesburg High School. A devoted historian, he heads the school’s social studies department.”
    (Orlando Sentinel, “Death Row Fascinates Teacher”, August 11, 1993)

    And another, which might actually be the modern phrase:

    ““I don’t think it’s a thing now of musicians taking it seriously,” says Nicholas. “Musicians have taken it seriously from Louis Armstrong on. My dad practiced all the time—I could never practice like that, I don’t have the discipline. I love music, but just to sit there [and practice], that’s something I’m still trying to do.””
    (OffBeat Magazine, “Father & Son: Walter and Nicholas Payton”, October 1, 1993)

     
    …It’s silly. I mean, why wouldn’t anyone else done just that exact search before? (The 1975 interview was particularly unexpected.)

  62. Bloix said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 7:19 pm

    Peter – “Here’s the thing” is usually more or less the Shakespearean, “Aye, there’s the rub.” It means, I’m about to explain the difficulty or obstacle that you/I/we are facing.

  63. Bloix said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 8:19 pm

    The trusty google ngram tells us that “quite a thing” has been around for more than two hundred years. There was an expression, “quite a thing of course,” meaning something done as a matter of course, ordinarily – it seems this could be used sarcastically, as “was it, he asked, quite a thing of course to suspend the Constitution to please the Minister?” (from Parliamentary debates).

    But there was also “quite a thing” which seems to have meant an ignorant or inexperienced person (“I knew nothing then; I was quite a thing, Your Honor” – from All the World’s A Stage, 1777) – and “quite the thing” meaning trendy, and “not quite the thing” meaning improper.

  64. When Did “a Thing” Become a Thing? « Fribliss said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 8:20 pm

    […] The linguists at Penn State’s Language Log have been able to trace the expression back to 2002: […]

  65. Weekend Reading CXXXVIII : Blogcoven said,

    April 22, 2016 @ 7:33 am

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  66. James Barrett said,

    April 22, 2016 @ 10:03 am

    This video from the Royal Society quotes a letter from the 1780’s which seems to use ‘is a thing’ in the modern sense. The reference starts at 04:00.

  67. Link love: language (66) | Sentence first said,

    April 27, 2016 @ 2:01 pm

    […] wondering when become a thing became a thing become a […]

  68. John Cowan said,

    April 27, 2016 @ 11:04 pm

    Lane: In addition to all those Things you mention, there is also the parliament of the Isle of Man, which is Tynwald today but was once Thingwald.

    I suspect the 1783 predate is bogus, though: I think the “and … and” means “both … and”, so that the whole thing (er, the construction) means “is a thing both possible and real”.

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