Two nights ago, I did a reading with the wonderful author Leora Skolkin-Smith (Hystera). The evening’s event was called The Family Thing. And while the plan was to connect up our shared interest in the thematics of family, I steered momentarily off course to that all-consuming linguistic place holder, the word ‘thing’.
I have always enjoyed the word ‘thing’ and, more so, its plural form: ‘things’. The word is surely one of the most comprehensive nouns in the English language. In fact, I bet we could dispense with most of the other 125,000+ nouns (OED very rough estimate) and get along with one another just fine. Whenever at a loss for specifics or the right words, we can always rely on ‘things’ to keep us from sounding like an idiot.
For example, the enunciative catch-all, or what linguists – in their hapless fly-in-the-bottle effort to pin down language with language – call the phatic:
“How are things?” – This is a general greeting, seemingly harmless, that inquires about one’s state of affairs. It does not necessarily expect an answer. That’s very helpful, because the existential metaphysics lurking within any kind of real answer would likely make both your and your interlocutor’s head explode. “Fine,…thanks for asking” suffices perfectly well. Everyone gets off the hook.
On the other hand with a slight twist, we can ferret out some(thing) more specific:
“How are things going?” – Although here we could still be referring to the unleashed maelstrom raging inside your head, we might actually be inquiring about that disastrous money pit, bad contractor, loopy architect apartment renovation you should have never undertaken. “Don’t ask,” you reply.
Then, there is the Materialist usage:
“Did you bring your things?” – Seemingly straightforward, it can also deliver up an unintended sucker punch. You think to yourself as your stomach corkscrews, “Holy shit, what did I forget?!” Your cramped-up muscles relax on their bones only when you realize your suitcase is hanging heavily from your hand.
Or an Action, an Event that still needs to be given a proper name.
“What was that thing you did, the other night?” Here, everyone has a good chuckle remembering what a card you’d been at that big party, the one where you strutted around bent-kneed, neck-jerking like a clucking hen, quoting Heidegger with a corrugated lamp shade on your head. Best that the event remains unnamed, however,…along with your identity. There are a lot folks you didn’t meet at the party who are now all over town declaiming, “This guy did this totally weird thing at a party the other night…”
All in all, we’re a funny lot with our language games. Wittgenstein had it right when he said about ‘things’: “The older I grow the more I realize how terribly difficult it is for people to understand each other, and I think that what misleads one is the fact that we all look so much like each other. If some people looked like elephants and others like cats, or fish, one wouldn’t expect them to understand each other and things would look much more like what they really are.”
The filmmaker, John Carpenter had it right as well: “Man is the warmest place to hide” …for any thing.
But in As It Is On Earth, Taylor Thatcher speaks for all humanity when he wonders, “why everyone wants so badly to get to the bottom of things. The Real Bottom…below which, nothing…no Thing…not even a word for it.”