Once upon a time, there was a mighty word from Old Norse that meant a decision-making assembly, charged with important business–you know, futhark-laden, land-holding, axe-wielding, men-only stuff.
Over the centuries, this ancient and esteemed word became care-worn and lowly, a word to toss in the mix when the other words in our heads block all the light and leave us grasping.
On its journey from mighty þing and mightier Alþing to simple thing, it even lost a letter. The gracefully curved thorn, along with 11 other siblings, didn’t make the cut into the modern 26-letter alphabet.
Yet, through thing‘s very ubiquitousness and utility, its insistence on cropping up again and again when a better word would surely suffice, it stands as a miracle of survival and resilience. Its distinctive starting sound, made by thrusting the tip of the tongue between the teeth and aspirating silently (‘th’) has become a hallmark of spoken English, a frustrating exercise for some non-native English speakers–and has defied the attempts of a few born speakers, too.
We suspect even Julie Andrews required elocution lessons to enunciate things with aplomb.
Thing is, I grew up being shooed off from delicious, old words like thing. The vagueness it supposedly lends to a sentence is bad news to English teachers and buttoned-down employers who think they know what’s what. Yet try getting through just one day without it. You’ll learn a thing or two about its value.
Thing is the comfortable old blanket in many sentences, a humanizing sign that we’re actively thinking, that our minds are not perfect, our logic not impeccable, our things all in a muddle. Many things defy our understanding, and many more defy description.
The old words are the best words. That’s the thing I’m trying to say.