"It's a thing": anachronism spotting in I, Tonya
I love the versatility of the word “thing” in colloquial English:
You know that thing where you repeat a word over and over until it just sounds like utter gibberish?
he just sat in his car and ate a whole thing of candy beans
I can’t go out tonight. I’ve got a thing.
It’s kinda like in the movies where one person leaves right as the other person walks in like 2 minutes later kinda thing.
She got a cough. She got it from Jean. And now it’s a whole thing with Jean.
These usages all strike me as being pretty recent innovations.
Watching the film I, Tonya, I heard another thing idiom that stuck out to me as sounding a little too fresh for 1993:
JEFF: I mean, girl skaters at this level. They’re always messing with each other’s skate blades. With each other’s costumes.
SHERIFF: I never knew that.
JEFF: Yeah, it’s a thing.
Mark Liberman wrote a nice Language Log post on a thing, specifically its predicative use in phrases like “that’s not even a thing”, or “when did that become a thing?”.
Here are a few examples I found on Reddit, along with my attempts to paraphrase their meaning:
- Is Zeus Support a thing? (/r/learndota2). Is it considered legitimate/reasonable to play this character in this role? Is it something players are known to do?
- Celebrities without eyebrows - apparently it’s a thing (/r/funny). Photoshopping photos of celebrities to erase their eyebrows is something that people do. Here is a page of Google image search results as evidence.
- I just played against this opening. Is this actually a thing? (/r/chess). Is this a known strategy that players find success with?
So was a thing already a thing in 1993 when that I, Tonya scene was supposed to take place?
In his Language Log post, the earliest example Mark was able to find was from 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.
(Which is actually a bit of a puzzler. The speaker isn’t denying that the phenomenon - girls in San Francisco having many gay friends - occurs. So is she instead saying that it’s not a thing because it wasn’t thought about or discussed? Or maybe this is closer to the “it’s a whole thing with Jean” usage, where thing denotes a problem.)
Commenters pitched in with earlier sightings. Notably…
An example from a 2000 forum post found by Adrian Riskin…:
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.
From a 1997 interview found by January First-of-May:
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.
But I think I have them all beat. Turning to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I was able to find a pretty unambiguous example dating back to 1993, from an episode of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show:
LIMBAUGH: (Voiceover) Well, I was perplexed by this because as you people know, as a powerful influential member of the media, I fly quite a bit. And I’ve been on airplanes, especially American flights, and I’ve seen male flight attendants. Now I don’t know how many of those male flight attendants are male lesbians – you know… (Laughter) Well, it’s a thing. I mean, there’s a – it’s a – there’s a feminist professor down in Tampa who’s discovered a male lesbian – it’s ra – it’s a woman victimized by creation trapped in the body of a man and she’s trying to – so you never know how many males are male lesbians. But we found at American Airlines, 15 to 20 percent of those flight attendants are men.
However, of the 22 instances of predicative a thing I was able to find in COCA, all but 2 occurred after 2010, and half occurred in the last 2 years. Some Language Log commenters pointed out that this usage was common on 30 Rock (indeed, I was able to find two different instances of it in a single episode from 2012), which seems like a plausible vector for its entry into the mainstream.
So sure, Tonya Harding’s ex-husband might have used this idiom in 1993, but it would have put him on the bleeding edge of linguistic trends (along with Rush Limbaugh).