The thing thing

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Among a number of culturally and linguistically interesting points in the “Asians in the UCLA Library” rant, Jay Livingston focuses on the speaker’s use of the phrase “the tsunami thing”.


The speaker is complaining that “these hordes of Asian people that UCLA accepts into our school every single year” need to learn that “In America, we don’t talk on our cell phones in the library!”.

[audio: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/TsunamiThing.mp3]

And then it’s the same thing, five minutes later.
But it’s somebody else, you know,
I swear they’re going through their whole family just checking on everybody from the
tsumani thing. I mean, I know, OK that sounds horrible,
like I feel bad for all the people affected by the tsunami,
but if you’re going to go call your address book,
like you might as well go outside, because if something IS wrong,
you might really freak out if you’re in the library and everybody is quiet,
like you seriously should go outside if you’re going to do that.

Jay Livingston’s comment:

Adding “thing” to “the tsunami” makes Wallace seem especially callous. Linguists must have looked into this, but for some reason, “thing” here implies, “I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.”  I vividly recall a scene in the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” where Joe Mantegna, as the competitive chess father, is at a parent-teacher conference. The teacher is concerned that Mantegna’s chess-prodigy son (age 8 or so) is falling behind academically and socially. She adds, “I’m sure he’s very good at this chess thing, but that isn’t really the issue.” Mantegna loses it. “My son has a gift. He has a gift, and once you acknowledge that, then maybe we’ll have something to talk about. Chess is what it’s called. Not the ‘chess thing.’”

It’s not easy to search for linguists who might have looked into this use of thing. All that I’ve been able to find is sense 4.c. of the OED’s entry, which gives the gloss “colloq. With preceding noun, noun phrase, or adjective: the matter or business which pertains to or is associated with the specified place, phenomenon, etc.”, and the citations

1906 ‘H. McHugh’ Skiddoo! vii. 94   When it comes to that poetry thing he thinks he can make Hank Longfellow beat it up a tree.
1909 St. J. Lucas First Round iii. xxxiii. 320,   I shall have to stay there I suppose; they spoke of giving me a fellowship at Balliol, and of course there is the All Souls thing later on.
1930 Chicago Daily Tribune 9 Nov. ii. 3/7   All of us would like to help a pal in any emergency‥. But on the ticket thing: Ixnay! Ixnay!
1955 F. O’Connor Let. 18 May in Habit of Being (1980) 82,   I will be real glad when this television thing is over with.
1968 T. Wolfe Electric Kool-aid Acid Test i. 13   Thousands of kids were moving into San Francisco for a life based on LSD and the psychedelic thing.
1982 H. Engel Murder on Location 145   Where have you been? I’ve been trying to get you since this Miranda thing broke.
2003 T3 Mar. 32/1   There’s an FM/MW tuner inside to pick up any slowcoaches who haven’t cottoned on to the digital thing yet.

Some but not all of these examples seem to confirm Livingston’s feeling that “for some reason, ‘thing’ here implies, ‘I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.'”

But Livingston is clearly right about the most famous recent American use of this pattern, which is not from Searching for Bobby Fischer, but rather from an anonymous 1987 anecdote about George H.W. Bush (Robert Ajemian, “Where Is The Real George Bush?“, Time Magazine, 1/26/1987:

Ideas and ideologies do not move Bush. People and their problems do. Domestic issues, in particular, stir him little. One man interviewed by Bush in 1980 for a senior post on his presidential campaign staff asked the candidate what two or three issues mattered most to him. Bush paused, then answered in his own way: he would put the best people in charge and create a superb Government. Colleagues say that while Bush understands thoroughly the complexities of issues, he does not easily fit them into larger themes.

This has led to the charge that he lacks vision. It rankles him. Recently he asked a friend to help him identify some cutting issues for next year’s campaign. Instead, the friend suggested that Bush go alone to Camp David for a few days to figure out where he wanted to take the country. “Oh,” said Bush in clear exasperation, “the vision thing.” The friend’s advice did not impress him.

As for the content of Ms. Wallace’s rant, it seems unlikely to me that she actually overheard someone in the UCLA library checking in Japanese on the fate of relatives in Japan. There’s some evidence internal to her discussion that calls her powers of observation into question — “Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong” is a conventional stereotype for Chinese speech, not Japanese. And there’s a piece of external cultural evidence. During a visit to Japan back in 2004, I noted the relative rarity of public cell phone usage for voice conversations, and the popularity of texting there at a time when almost no one did it in the U.S. (“Texting“, 3/8/2004):

This morning, I took the train from Meguro (near my hotel) to Ookayama (near Tokyo Institute of Technology). My car had about 60 people in it. Of these, 12 were busy texting. Among the other younger-looking people in the group, five were sleeping, and one was reading an English workbook. All of the other riders seemed to be older.

A striking contrast to the American pattern is that no one was actually talking on a cell phone. There may be some kind of rule about cell phone usage on the trains, I don’t know — on the bus in from Narita airport, there was a sign in Japanese and English requesting riders not to use cell phones because it “annoys the neighbors”. But I don’t see or hear a lot of people talking on cell phones here, compared to the U.S. In fact, I don’t think that I’ve actually overhead any cell phone calls during the couple of days that I’ve been in Tokyo, although I’ve spent about five or six hours in various public spaces where I’d expect to hear such conversations in the U.S. I’ve seen people engaged in cell phone conversations, but they have always been doing it so quietly or so much off by themselves that I couldn’t hear.

Discussions with Japanese friends confirmed this impression (“More on meiru“, 3/9/2004):

As for why Japanese people in general use cell phone meiru so much, there was agreement that it is considered rude to talk on the phone (cell or otherwise) in the hearing of others, and that talking on a cell phone in a public place would be especially impolite.

For a thoughtful response to Ms. Wallace’s video, Lisa Wade at Sociological Images points to this “persona poem” by Beau Sia, “Asians in the library of the world“:

Update — Brett at English, Jack used COCA and COHA to scope out the time and genre distributions of what he dubs “dismissive ‘thing'”, and also goes looking for its beginnings:

The first clear instance I found was from a 1914 playscript by Eugene Gladstone O’Neill, The Movie Man. Referring to the planned execution of Fernandez, Devlin says, “Don’t forget to have Gomez postpone that shooting thing.”

But it looks to me like the OED’s 1906 citation from Skidoo! is also an instance of “dismissive ‘thing'”. A bit more of the context:

I pulled a wheeze on Bunch Jefferson a few weeks ago that made him sit up and scream for help. […]

Bunch can really sling a nasty little pen, but he isn’t anybody’s John W. Milton. […]

He can take a bunch of the English language and flatten it out around the edges till it looks quite poetic, but that doesn’t make him a George O. Khayaam.

Not at all.

The trouble with Bunch is that his home folks have swelled his chest to such an extent by petting his adjectives that he thinks he has Shakespeare on a hot skiddoo for the sand dunes, and when it comes to that poetry thing he thinks he can make Hank Longfellow beat it up a tree. […]

When Peaches and I went out Westchester way a few weeks ago to spend a week-end with Bunch and Alice, all we heard was home-made poetry. […]

Even at meal times Bunch couldn’t break away.

With a voice full of emotion and vegetable soup he would exclaim:

And now the twilight shadows on
The distant mountain flutter,
And thou, my fair and good friend John,
Wilt kindly pass the butter!

Update #2 — Some experimental support for the view that  Japanese-speaking students are less (rather than more) likely to have loud cell phone conversations in the UCLA library, compared to people who look like Alexandra Wallace; from Baron et al., “Cross-cultural patterns in mobile-phone use“, New Media & Society 12(1), 2010:

Of course, Ms. Wallace may be complaining about Chinese-speaking students, given her imitation of their language — but in that case, it makes no sense for them to be checking on “the tsunami thing”. The most parsimonious explanation is that her tendency to see things in terms of group stereotypes is much stronger than either her powers of observation or her knowledge of geography and current affairs. This is a shame, since she seems to be planning a career in politics.



64 Comments

  1. Mike M said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 6:02 am

    I think the most famous (and most derogatory) recent use has to be Sarah Palin’s ‘how’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ out for ya?’

  2. GeorgeW said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 6:39 am

    Does noun/adjective+thing always trivialize? Is there a notable difference in:

    1. The Japanese nuclear thing is very serious.
    2. The Japanese nuclear issue is very serious.

    Maybe ‘thing’ is less formal than ‘issue’ and therefore more trivial. But, it doesn’t, to me, have the same trivializing force as her “tsunami thing.” Is the difference just context?

  3. Amy Stoller said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 7:09 am

    Similar derogatory nuance can be achieved (not invariably, of course – it’s contextual) through adding “person,” “people,” “man,” “woman,” “boy,” “girl.”

    In passing, I note that I regularly hear Americans of all types talking on cell-phones in all sorts of situations that I’m old enough to consider in appropriate. I do wish, that having invented shoe-phones, the geeks who did so would also have invented a Cone of Silence.

    Maybe we could call them phone booths.

  4. Amy Stoller said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 7:10 am

    There’s something wrong with the construction of my next-to-last sentence – but let it pass …

  5. Eric P Smith said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 7:10 am

    I wonder if we ought to distinguish three separate kinds of case here.

    Firstly there is “the psychedelic thing”, where the phrase refers to an abstract object. The speaker must use either an existing noun for the abstract object (e.g. “psychedelia”) or improvise a noun phrase for it (“the pschedelic thing”). “The digital thing” is similar. I don’t think we can criticise the use of “thing” in such cases.

    Secondly there is “the ticket thing”, where “thing” means “matter” or “issue”. “This Miranda thing”, “this television thing”, and “the vision thing” are similar. Perhaps using “matter” or “issue” would come across as more precise, but I don’t think we can seriously criticise the use of “thing” in such cases.

    Thirdly there is “from the tsunami thing”. There the speaker simply means “from the tsunami”. “He’s very good at this chess thing” is similar: it just means “he’s very good at chess”. To my ears, it is only this third kind of case, where the word “thing” is gratuitous, that clearly implies “I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.”

    (I wrote this before I saw GeorgeW’s post, but my point is an extension of his.)

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 7:50 am

    Seemingly gratuitous – but not derogatory – thing appears in a strange construction whereby you add -y to a noun or even a verb and make it modify thing. It seems to indicate vagueness about the precise nature of the object in question, as in

    Do you have a stir-y thing?

    but the referent can be seemingly indistinguishable from what the ordinary unmodified word means:

    I need to get a ticket-y thing.

    Not sure if this is just, er, a UK thing. It has a knowingly cutesy ring to my ear.

  7. GeorgeW said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 7:58 am

    Pflaumbaum: I think noun+y just adds another, and maybe greater, level of trivialization.

    Had Palin said, ‘how is that hopey-changey promise workin’ out for ya,’ it would have still been trivializing.

  8. Meagen said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 8:03 am

    To my ears, the core meaning of “thing” is admitting ignorance. If I am talking about something and I say “the- you know, the thing” it means “I don’t remember the correct word”. When I saw a notice on our University’s front page that the Dean had resigned in the face of some controversy (the first time I’d heard anything about this), I asked other students “do you know anything about this controversy thing?”.

    So saying “the tsunami thing” would for me give the impression of “I have heard a lot about a tsunami affecting people, but I don’t really have enough knowledge to really appreciate how bad it might be”.

  9. Spell Me Jeff said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 8:21 am

    An admission of ignorance seems to be part of it. But sometimes when we admit ignorance, it is legitimately self-deprecating: “I feel a little silly because I haven’t been paying attention.” Other times, it is to suggest that the issue is not worth knowing about: “Why would anyone pay attention to that?”

  10. Faldone said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 8:24 am

    Not quite on issue here, but I would suspect that the people she is complaining about are Chinese. It’s her understanding of the location of the tsunami that’s questionable.

  11. Nick Dvoracek said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 8:27 am

    And, of course, you might not be in to the whole brevity thing.

  12. Amy said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 8:38 am

    @Pflaumbaum, “Not sure if this is just, er, a UK thing. It has a knowingly cutesy ring to my ear.”

    I would agree with this. Also, for myself at least, this is also a good way of talking to young children when they won’t neccessarily know uncommon words. If you wanted to avoid the use of the word “colander”, for example, you could refer to it as “that hole-y thing”, so the child understands more readily. Perhaps these childlike connotations could add to the trivialising effect?

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 8:42 am

    It is perhaps important to recall that features of speech used by young California Anglo females are often disproportionately singled out for stigmatization. I don’t know if the “thing” construction is more common among young speakers or in particular among whatever Valley Girls are called these days, but I wouldn’t assume it necessarily has the same implications or overtones there as when used by, say, G.H.W. Bush. Here, where the overall message is derogatory, it is easy to conclude that particular speech features were intended to add derogatory emphasis when it might be the case that they are just, say, informal, and the derogatoriness is in the substance rather than the expression.

    But beyond the what-Chinese-sounds-like stereotype noted by myl, it seems highly likely given the composition of the California population (which the UCLA student body is obviously not a perfect cross-section of) that Japanese-speaking students are much much less common than Chinese-speaking students and somewhat less common that, e.g. Korean-speaking or Vietnamese-speaking students. Language use is not fully proportionate to ethnicity: the 2000 census stats for California indicate, e.g., that Chinese ethnicity is about 3 times as common as Japanese but that speaking Chinese at home is about 5 times as common as speaking Japanese, presumably because fewer Japanese-Americans are themselves immigrants or the first American-born generation.

  14. Simon Tatham said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 8:47 am

    To my ear, “the X thing” could signal ignorance (“I have vaguely heard that there’s something or other that people have been describing with the word X, and whatever that’s all about is what I mean here”), but doesn’t have to. It might also mean not only the X but the surrounding circumstances: so “the tsunami thing” (or perhaps sometimes “the whole tsunami thing”) might be trying to clarify that you mean not just the tsunami itself but also the ongoing collection of knock-on aftereffects (destroyed homes, damaged infrastructure, broken nuclear reactors etc) which are still causing serious trouble long after the actual wave has been and gone.

  15. Richard said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 9:01 am

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zulEMWj3sVA&feature=related
    (perhaps NSFW if you’re not of asian descent or surrounded by understanding coworkers, though there’s really nothing bad in it except a loaded phrase)

    This was my favourite response to her video by a really talented singer that has received millions of hits. I know a lot of (Asian) people that have been “taking back” the the phrase “Ching Chong” since seeing this as a term of endearment. Will it become widespread, or is it just a phase? Who knows. Might be something to keep an eye on.

    As the song says…
    (Ching Chong) It means I love you / It’s never ending
    (Ling Long) I really want you / My head is spinning
    (Ting tong) I actually don’t know what that means.

    The author of this (and other songs) is selling his songs on iTunes with all proceeds going to the “Tsunami thing”. He addresses this in his ‘Mario A Capella” video….an unrelated but fun cover song.

  16. Richard said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 9:12 am

    Follow up….
    I just saw his latest video

    http://www.youtube.com/user/jimmy#p/u/0/OUdoEoy2dbo

    He ends it with a “Ching Chong” and a kiss goodbye, if anyone wants to see this term of endearment in action. It is a very talented piece of work, but you can skip ahead to the 4:00 minute marker if you want to see this.

  17. Spell Me Jeff said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    A number of people have commented on the “stem+y thing” pattern. Tsunami ends in the same sound. I wonder if this might have primed Wallace in some way.

  18. micah said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 9:24 am

    I would associate the “-y thing” construction with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (e.g., “Cars and Buffy are un-mix-y things”), so I don’t think it’s limited to the UK.

  19. Cy said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 9:47 am

    it seems that moving the noun to an adjectival position and reheading the np with “thing” works pretty well to objectively devalue said noun. example: “so how’s your Language Log thing coming along?” Or for me personally, “how’s your Ph.D thing working out so far?”

  20. Rick Sprague said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 9:56 am

    The vagueness of thing is a semantic function, while derogation and trivialization are pragmatic interpretations from context. Thus, they aren’t mutually exclusive. Given the context of a rant against the supposed impoliteness of Asians in the library, “the tsunami thing” could reasonably be interpreted as trivialization, but could equally be seen as indicating only non-topicality (I’m aware of the serious disaster in Japan, but it’s not what I’m talking about here) or even abstraction (I swear they’re going through their whole family just checking on things like the tsunami disaster.) Which interpretation is reached will depend on the hearer’s predisposition, which is probably determined by their reaction to the overall rant.

    I note that the ranter doesn’t claim to be overhearing Japanese in particular, and in fact uses mock Chinese as a stereotype of an overheard conversation. She may not be able to tell one Asian language from another, but it’s a reasonable assumption that the word “tsunami” (in multiple languages?) occurred in at least some of the overheard conversations, and that is one word she might well have recognized, so that it became the only concrete example she could give. There is no other evidence in her rant that suggests she’s singling out Japanese people, and ample evidence to the contrary.

  21. Melissa Fox said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 10:26 am

    cf. also Jesus Christ Superstar, in which Tim Rice wrote:

    What, then, do to about this Jesus-mania?
    How do we deal with the carpenter king?
    Where do we start with a man who is bigger
    Than John was when John did his baptism thing?

  22. Melissa Fox said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    (In, by the way, 1971.)

  23. Mr Fnortner said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    Rick Sprague’s first sentence nicely leads to the conclusion that the vagueness of the word thing has important utility. In many ways, thing is not far from being a pronoun, which none of has semantic problems with. Perhaps thing used this way occupies a very informal register, but I don’t think it is misused. The rant, on the other hand, could have been quickly changed with a little forethought so that all references to Asians would have been replaced with references to people in general, and the rant would have been more accurate, legitimate, and inoffensive. In its present form it betrays quite a bit of hostility the speaker tries hard to deny.

  24. kktkkr said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 11:55 am

    In a slightly weaker sense, “thingy”.

    Also of note: many of the OED examples seem to be dismissive of new technology or trends. (Or maybe I’m not old enough to get those references!) As for poetry and chess, they can be considered skills (related to geek culture, I suppose – I’m guessing that the less socially common something is, the more likely it will occur in this construction.)

  25. Robert said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

    John Lennon used the phrase “the Nigeria-Biafra thing” when explaining his reasons for returning his MBE. I don’t know if he intended to trivialize that or not.

  26. Rebecca said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

    On a more minor point of your post–

    Naomi Baron has studied cultural differences in cell phone use and in views of the (in)appropriateness of speaking and texting in public. From her website (http://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/nbaron.cfm):

    Baron spent the 2007-2008 academic year gathering data on university student use of (and attitudes towards) mobile phones in Sweden, the US, Italy, Japan, and Korea. Findings from the study appear in the themed section Baron edited of an issue of New Media & Society (2010), in the Danish journal Language at Work, and in the forthcoming book Cultures of Participation.

  27. ShadowFox said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

    I normally would have expected “or something” rather than “thing” when talking about something that one does not know or care much about. But “thing” is an adequate substitution, especially when “or something” does not work prosodically. Even more generic is “something-or-other”. Here’s a wild theory–could “thing” be a contraction of one of these two?

  28. Chandra said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

    It seems unlikely to me that she actually overheard someone in the UCLA library checking in Japanese […] “Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong” is a conventional stereotype for Chinese speech, not Japanese.”

    This is assuming she would have the sophistication to know that one Asian language sounds measurably different from another. My guess would be she’d use that stereotype to describe any overheard Asian speech.

    With regards to Sarah Palin’s “hopey-changey thing” comment, I’ve always found that one particularly facepalm-worthy, as it seems to imply that she disapproves of the very ideas of hope and change. So what was she building her political platform on – despair and stagnation?

  29. Will said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

    When I saw this video the first time, I didn’t consider “tsunami thing” derogatory at all. I just understood it to mean “all of the events and issues and outcomes surrounding the tsunami”, with no value judgments on these events and issues and no implication of ignorance either.

    Her entire rant, of course, was offensive for its content, but I don’t think “the tsunami thing” is offensive by itself.

    I use “thing” in the same way, as a catchall association term for “X and all the important things related to X” to efficiently get an idea across when both speaker and listener already have shared knowledge of X and the issues surrounding it.

  30. Elliott P. said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

    Chandra, if you can’t figure out what Palin’s point was, we’re all doomed.

  31. blahedo said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

    It strikes me that the dismissive ‘thing’ only works (or at least, works most strongly) if the element preceding ‘thing’ is itself a more or less complete descriptor of what is being discussed. E.g.:
    the chess thing (aka “chess”)
    the tsunami thing (aka “the tsunami”)
    that hopey-changey thing (aka “hope and change”)

    Whereas if ‘thing’ is preceded by either a jumble of descriptors (that don’t constitute a name, or that you don’t know has a name) or by a single item that functions as a tag (identifying a larger idea) rather than a description, then it is not dismissive:
    the Nigeria-Biafra thing (i.e. the Nigerian Civil War)
    the hole-y bowl thing (i.e. the colander)
    this Miranda thing (i.e. the whole affair involving Miranda)

    As a matter of pragmatics, if I have demonstrated that I know the actual name of a thing, and that it’s not too long to say (and I’ve said it), and I *still* use ‘thing’, it’s maybe conveying the dismissive message that this topic is so beneath my concern that even though I’ve clearly bothered to know about it I can’t be bothered to know about it.

  32. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

    If the video is comedy, I think the young woman will go far.

    Is this an antedating?

    “Somehow he seemed to think that one story was somethin’ better than he had ever done before, and that he could n’t a done it of his own accord, but that it was what ye’d call a sort o’ inspiration thing, and that it would never come to him again. That, o’ course was a lie. There was n’t never nothin’ inspired ’cept the Bible.

    Marah Ellis Ryan, “‘In His Own Country'”, The American Magazine, vol. VIII, 1888.

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

    Somewhat following blahedo, I’m not sure if the elder Bush’s “vision thing” was actually just a dismissive way of saying “vision,” as opposed to something slightly different, not even exactly “the whole affair of ‘vision,'” but more like “the irksome-to-me set of media-driven expectations and conventions pushing candidates to waste time articulating an overarching ‘vision.'” I suppose this could apply to other instances. For example, if a parent complained about a child’s attachment to the “ice-skating thing” it might be a reference not to the pure activity of ice skating, but to the irksome associated baggage such as the need to drive the child to a rink to practice at inconvenient hours, pressure to buy skating paraphernalia that was not strictly necessary to the activity as such, demands that figure skating events be watched on tv at home when the parent would rather be watching something else, etc etc etc. If you consider the teacher’s POV in the Searching for Bobby Fischer exchange, something like that may be what’s going on.

  34. J Lee said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

    i too find the most troubling part her apparent inability to distinguish asian groups and languages, especially given her location. my rendition would highlight the most conspicuous differences from european languages, i.e. tones, or in the case of japanese an exaggerated high pitch with only open syllables. not that hard to be more precise and give authenticity to the rant.

    did anyone notice her saying they interrupt her when she is ‘about to have an epiphany’? it really must be very frustrating.

  35. Ron said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

    I think Eric P. Smith’s taxonomy of “thing” is pretty comprehensive. Both “baptism thing” and “Biafra thing” sound like the “psychedelic thing”, of which “do your own thing” may be the ur-example. They all sound very dated.

    I don’t hear the neutral “ticket thing” very often, except when the speaker is unable to come up with the intended word (“Miranda thing” vs “Miranda issue”). For me, unfortunately, this is age-related.

    However, I have no doubt that “tsunami thing” was dismissive, if only because the speaker immediately walked it back with “I mean, I know, OK that sounds horrible, …” I also noted that the speaker closed her rant with “Have a nice day”, which in this context probably could be translated as “F off and die.”

    BTW, I’m not sure where I would locate the “poetry thing” from Skidoo quoted in the original post. I didn’t read the speaker there as being dismissive of poetry per se; rather, I thought the comment referred to Bunch’s feeble attempts to write it.

    Finally, I think Amy Stoller is on to something when she says that the same effect can be obtained with other nouns, such as “person” (“that Sarah Palin person”) but I’ve never heard it with “people”. I think I’ve also heard a similar construction with “place” (“that Alaska place” – meaning Alaska itself, not a place in Alaska).

  36. Rubrick said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

    Interestingly (to me anyway), without the modifier — and with the addition of capitalization (though admittedly the usage is usually spoken) — “Thing” can have an anti-trivializing effect. As in, “Using thing as a trivializer? Yeah, that’s totally a Thing. Linguists have even studied it.”

  37. Chandra said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 5:02 pm

    @Elliott P: It isn’t figuring out her point that’s the issue; it’s how she chose to express it.

  38. Q. Pheevr said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    I had a hunch that the works of P.G. Wodehouse would be a good place to go thing-hunting, and indeed they are. Here’s one from A Prefect’s Uncle (1903):

    ‘What’s up?’ he asked.
    ‘This bally poem thing,’ said Lorimer.

    This seems similar in spirit to the 1906 example from the OED. Wodehouse doesn’t get much earlier than this, but I expect he was reflecting a usage that was already kicking around in the spoken language, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if earlier written attestations turn up somewhere.

  39. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

    A while back, there was an argument on this blog between folks who maintained that “most ____s” means strictly “a majority of ____s” and folks who maintained that it meant strictly “the vast majority of ____s”. Almost no one seemed willing (or able) to consider the possibility that the word means different things to different people.

    Going by J.W. Brewer’s first comment above, which seems spot-on to me, and Will’s comment above, which seems to prove that J.W. Brewer was right, this seems to be more of the same: to a lot of people her usage seems dismissive, and they’re unwilling or unable to admit the possibility that to her it was not.

    In particular, I note Ron’s comment above, where he writes:

    > However, I have no doubt that “tsunami thing” was dismissive, if only because the speaker immediately walked it back with “I mean, I know, OK that sounds horrible, …”

    I’ll grant that he does consider the possibility, at least long enough to reject it, but not on very compelling grounds. Throughout the video, Ms. Wallace is continually “walking back” her statements, correcting exaggerations, and giving a lot of nuance to her points of view. Obviously her points of view are racist, but apparently even racists can be nuanced sometimes. In this specific case, she had just expressed annoyance at people checking in with their potentially tsunami-affected families; I think that that would merit backpedaling no matter how it was phrased.

    And the claim that “tsunami thing” is synonymous with “tsunami”, except dismissive, seems far-fetched. Anyone who’s been following the news knows that there’s much more to the tsunami situation than just the tsunami proper. I imagine some speakers use the term “tsunami” in reference to the situation as a whole, but I’m quite certain that many speakers do not.

    For the record, I’m not positive that she wasn’t being dismissive, but I think that some of the commenters here are assuming too much!

  40. CT said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

    The Tsunami Thing would be what? The emergency parliament session to address the Tsunami situation? That doesn’t sound trivial at all…..
    *ducks*

  41. DG said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

    Well, most of my thesis that I am writing at the moment investigates uses of ‘thing’. In particular I look at uses of this items in Australian job interviews and compare those L1 uses to L2 uses. What is interesting is that ‘thing’ is used more than twice as frequently in the L1 than the L2 discourse. ‘Thing’ is a highly multifunctional item and very difficult to describe. It can, for example, show dismissive behaviour or an affectionate attitude, it can also be used for rapport-building purposes especially if its use is implicit, it can function as a floor-holder, an approximator as well as a placeholder in order to avoid a breakdown of communication when a speaker is at a loss for words. The item ‘thing’ is very fascinating but also very complex.

  42. Jitterro said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

    J Lee: It doesn’t seem uncommon to me for people to have difficulty recognizing the differences among Asian languages. Personally, I think the differences between Mandarin and Japanese are clear as day (I speak the former at a conversational level, though), but I still occasionally have trouble distinguishing between Korean and Thai, even though one has lexical tone and the other doesn’t.

    I don’t know if it’s related to location either; I know plenty of people who were born and raised here in Southern California but could not for the life of them differentiate Chinese from Japanese.

  43. ShadowFox said,

    April 7, 2011 @ 9:22 pm

    Another follow-up on blahedo:

    http://goo.gl/tu5wL
    Census Bureau expands use of ‘this thing called the Internet’

    It’s not quite “this internet thing”, but it’s quite similar.

  44. Dakota said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 8:13 am

    The “tsunami thing” I interpret as a series of actions, responses, and situations resulting from the tsunami, such as determining wellbeing of friends and family, aftershocks, availability of food, water, electricity, transportation. The long list of interconnected social rituals would make too long of a digression for normal conversation, especially if you’re not personally involved and don’t know what they are.

    “Tsunami thing” may be a cousin or even grandchild of the Easy Rider film’s “Do your own thing in your own time; you should be proud” classic line.

    “Thingy” is different from “X thing” as it represents a concrete but possibly unknown physical object.rather than an abstract unknown.

  45. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 9:52 am

    More antedating, with “picture thing” suggested by Q. Pheevr’s find of “bally poem thing”.

    “It hurts me, it is heavy,” she said quickly, and averted her head.
    “Nay, do not tell me that,” he said with a confident smile, weighing it on his fingers; “lighter far than that heavy picture thing you are so fond of wearing” […]
    The picture to which he alluded was her husband’s portrait.

    Elizabeth Caroline Grey, Aline, an Old Friend’s Story, 1848.

  46. KevinM said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 10:26 am

    I have a different take on GHW Bush’s “vision thing.” I thought the writer was channeling Bush, i.e., putting those words in his mouth, subtly attributing to him a certain cluelessness. “Vision” is the driving force behind a leader’s decisions. “The vision thing” is something you bone up on to get elected – a political tool, like kissing babies. It’s crass in the way that it is crass to consult a clergyman on the “ethical angle,” as if it were one of several equally imporant considerations.

    [(myl) It’s certainly true that only a very naive person would put any credence at all in journalists’ quotations when they are not supported by un-edited recordings, since we know that even when recordings are available, the published quotations still often omit crucial context, run together widely-separated fragments, and have word error rates of 40% to 80% even within the regions that are quoted. So you can take my citation of this quotation as a short-hand reference to the conventional amalgam of public relations and journalistic invention that constitutes the historical persona of a public figure.

    But whatever its actual source, the Bush “vision thing” quote summed up an important part of his image, by epitomizing the qualities that the Times reporter used it to depict.]

  47. rayd said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

    Yikes. Those students are almost certainly Chinese, almost certainly live in the area (and haven’t “brought family over with them”), and are demonstrating Chinese manners that anyone who’s been to Hong Kong lately would recognize.

    I just hope that political science thing works out for the young lass.

  48. John Burgess said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 3:58 pm

    At one time, some 50 years ago, I used to speak Thai. Living in Thailand for several years, I could certainly distinguish Thai from Chinese. Now, though? I still recognize Thai–though can be confused by Lao–but have no way of distinguishing Chinese from Japanese from Vietnamese. Sure, I know they’re different; I can tell them apart when seeing them in written form, usually. But hearing them as different? Not at all.

  49. Jeff said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 8:31 pm

    I don’t really understand not being able to distinguish Japanese from other Asian languages. To me it doesn’t even sound like an “Asian language,” because of the pure vowels and lack of consonants or sound combinations that would be unfamiliar to an English (or better yet, Spanish) speaker. Korean also sounds very distinctly different from any of the Chinese languages.

    I can understand not being able to distinguish between Mandarin, Taiwanese, Cantonese and Wu, but not being able to tell the difference between those languages and languages from a completely different language family seems strange. I mean, it’s not weird to not be able to tell the difference between Danish and Norwegian, but Chinese and Japanese sound pretty drastically different and aren’t even related (except through vocabulary borrowing, but the pronunciations are different in modern Chinese, so that doesn’t help them sound more similar).

    I’m pretty sure the only reason people mix them up is because the people speaking them look similar. If Arabic was spoken by a country of East Asians, people would probably be saying they couldn’t hear the difference between Arabic and Vietnamese.

  50. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 8, 2011 @ 9:21 pm

    One last, I promise, attempt at the antedating thing, this time with a quotation that may be in the OED’s sense 4.c. (“colloq. With preceding noun, noun phrase, or adjective: the matter or business which pertains to or is associated with the specified place, phenomenon, etc.”)

    “Did you know that Grace is taken up with this spiritualism thing?”

    Pick-me-up, May 31, 1890, <a href=”page 143.

    Of course, that could also be their sense 8.f. (“colloq. Used vaguely, with a preceding noun used appositively or as a more general indication of the kind of object or entity in question”). But as far as I can tell, so could “the tsunami thing”.

  51. Mar Rojo said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 4:51 am

    Related, in some way, to the “Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong” comment: A few years ago I was in an Irish bar in Madrid, Spain. Two drunken Brit men where standing at the bar when a middle-aged Chinese guy walked into the pub and began trying to sell CDs, DVDs, etc. When he came to the Brits, one of the guys blurted “Sayo-fuckin’-ara, mate!” at the seller.

    His mate said “What the fuck are you saying to him? That’s Japanese, not Chinese.” The friend replied slobberingly, “Iz all the fuckin’ same, He understanz what I’m sayin’.”.

    Now who said Terminator and Shogun didn’t teach anyone anything?

  52. Mar Rojo said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 5:00 am

    “That”, plus a reference to possession, works in a similar way.

    “I think he spends too much time doing that sport of his.”

    “Have you met that new boyfriend of hers?”

  53. Mar Rojo said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 5:32 am

    But in the case of Ms Wallace, I agree with the “ignorance” reading. The Japanese incident was just not big in her mind, imo. Who’s to say that we have to pay attention to every bit of news that comes our way?

  54. Mov said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

    Interesting to note, perhaps, that in German colloquial language Ding (E. “thing”) has come to serve a clear discourse particle function among young speakers:

    Das ist Ding gewesen damals – aufregend. (ModG)It has Ding been then – exciting.”It was, uhm, exciting back then.” (i.e. when searching for the term exciting)

    Da hab ich den Ding [replacing a proper name] gefragt. (ModG)
    Then have I Ding asked.
    “Then I asked don’t-know-his-name.” (i.e. when not aware of the name)

    In several German sociolects, therefore, Ding may be considered a hardcore one-for-all lexical gap filler even allowing for embedded use – which is not even the case with G. ähm (E. “uhm”).

  55. WendyS said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

    No one ever says they have to go to a funeral thing.

  56. Lazar said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

    In the words of They Might Be Giants, “I’m waiting for the dinner bell to do the bell thing. / Dinner bell, dinner bell, ding ding ding!”

  57. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

    @WendyS: It may depend on the alternative, as in this question at Yahoo Answers.

    How Can I convince my parents to let me go to a Jonas Brother Concert?

    i really want to go and we live in montana. They r having one in Englewood Colorado. That would work except that we have a family reunion funeral thing on the date that they r preforming. I really want to go. I need help on how to convince them to skip the family reunion funeral thing and take me to the concert.

  58. bloix said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

    Then there’s the unrelated “it’s a ___ thing,” as in it’s a black thing [or thang], it’s a jersey thing, it’s a Jewish thing.

  59. maidhc said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 3:34 am

    San Francisco journalist Herb Caen coined the term “beatnik” by analogy with “Sputnik”, and I think there may have been a few other “-nik” words at one time. But my father used to create “-nik” words whenever he couldn’t think of the right words, and many of his coinages remained in use in the family. For example, he called shoetrees “pushniks”.

    My father had no acquaintance with any Slavic language, but I think he probably picked up the concept during the Sputnik/beatnik era.

    I guess my family is too small a sample to claim that this is another example usage to add to the list.

    I would reply to Ron that I have heard and use “people” in a similar way. For example, there is a certain type of New-Agey person, often musicians, frequently hailing from southern California, who choose to conceal their receding hairlines with embroidered Central Asian headgear, who my little social circle refer to as the “funny-hat people”. I suppose if we did a little research, we could have come up with something pithier, but that is the term that arose spontaneously.

    I don’t criticize people in central Asia who have been wearing such hats for centuries, and I must admit to a slight temptation to emulate Sidney Greenstreet and don a fez when relaxing at home (not yet acted upon), but dude, if you don’t want to admit you’re going bald you should just shave your head instead of trying to make people think you just got back from a fifty-week tour in Kazakhstan.

  60. Rodger C said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

    Me wearð Grendles þing
    On minre eðeltyrf undyrne cuð.

  61. Peter G. Howland said,

    April 11, 2011 @ 4:26 am

    The “Funeral” thing

    @WendyS – Uhh…yes they do. In real life. Just yesterday, as a matter of fact.

    While on the phone with my brother during a particularly vicious ear-worm implanting contest, (I had called to sing “…got my little plastic Jesus ridin’ on the dashboard of my car…” and he came back with “…floatin’ like the heavens above, looks like muskrat love…” an especially insidious counter considering that The Captain and Tennille had recently moved to our little town of Prescott, Arizona) we paused to comment on our father’s 97th birthday last month and that ol’ dad was acceleratingly graveward bound.

    “And when he goes,” I said, “I’ll bet whatshername’s (his wife) gonna put on a big show for all her friends in Palm Desert.”
    “Well I sure’s hell ain’t going to no Funeral Thing,” said Gary.
    “Me neither,” I concurred.

    But then, we’re both a couple of 70-something maliciously disrespectful old farts, so maybe this doesn’t count.

  62. Bloix said,

    April 12, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    Well, this is well off track, but I don’t believe that Caen coined beatnik from Sputnik. I think “nik” enters English through Yiddish, as when Nathan Detroit (of Guys and Dolls) first sang on Broadway in 1950:

    Alright, already, I’m just a nogoodnik! Alright, Already, it’s true! So nu? Sue me, sue me, what can you do me, I love you!

    I think beatnik was formed on the model of nudnik (a bore – Russian to Yiddish to English) and nogoodnik (Yinglish, likely altered from the Russian nygodnik, a worthless person).

    I’m aware that Caen claims the origin was Sputnik, but that makes no sense. Sputnik was an object that people were in awe of; beatnik, nudnik and nogoodnik, is a pejorative that applies to people.

    It’s possible that Sputnik gave Caen a push – it makes it clear that beatniks, and later peaceniks, are foreign, un-American, probably Communists – but I think the main source is Yiddish.

  63. Bubba said,

    April 13, 2011 @ 12:16 am

    Where I come from we don’t type in the library but if we did hordes of old Asian people cooking food would be distracting, I have to agree..

  64. maidhc said,

    April 13, 2011 @ 3:13 am

    Bloix: it sounds very plausible. Herb Caen wasn’t a very reliable reporter. While San Francisco has had a sizeable Jewish community since the early days, there wasn’t that much Yiddish spoken here. But by the time it made it into Guys and Dolls it was in the mainstream.

    I like the sound of it. I wish people other than my father would think up a few more.

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