Whittiom of the Week: “That’s a thing”
February 24, 2015
Filed under What's In A Name?
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Welcome to Whittiom of the Week, where we wonder why we say what we say at Whitman.
So what is a whittiom, anyway? You guessed it––it’s an idiom that Whitties use frequently. An idiom, put simply, is a commonly spoken phrase that is not meant to be taken literally. For example, the phrase “at the end of the day” is an idiomatic phrase in most dialects of American English. When a speaker uses this phrase, they assume that the listener will understand something that is not immediately present in the words spoken, i.e., that the speaker is referring to the eventual outcome of something and not the literal end of a day. For the sake of this blog, an “idiom” does not have to be an entire phrase, but can be anything from a particular usage of a single word to an complete statement.
In this series of posts, “Whittiom of the Week,” I gather students’ opinions about the whittioms in our campus’s dialect. This first installment will discuss a rather widely-used idiom, the employment of the word “thing” to mean “a trend or well-recognized cultural phenomenon.”
It might be used in the following context:
Student 1: “Wow, I’m starting to realize that everyone at Whitman wears water-wicking windbreakers.”
Student 2: “Yeah, water-wicking windbreakers are such a thing.”
We’ve all heard “thing” used in this way before, perhaps in the statement, “that’s a thing.” I had not thought much about it until I ran into Junior Sam Curtis the other day. He told me that the idiom particularly bugged him, expressing a strong distaste for it:
“I feel that I hear it so much that it’s everywhere. At this point I’ve become so frustrated that I’ve just started ignoring it.”
I asked Sam to sit down for a short interview. As we talked, I found that his reasons for disliking this usage of the word “thing” fell into two categories. First, he disliked its ambiguity, calling the phrase “uninformational” and “undescriptive.” First-Year Galen Bishop echoed this concern, saying that “in any situation that you’d use â€˜that’s a thing,’ you could use other words that would be more specific.”
Sam’s second complaint was that people employ the phrase “that’s a thing” to self-satisfy:
“In some way it makes you sound like you’re educated on the subject, like you understand it more than you really do,” he said. He was bothered that the idiom puts its users in a position of authority on a given subject without requiring them to communicate about it in depth. Someone might say “that’s a thing” in a conversation full of esoteric cultural references to make themself seem “in” without having to cough up any details. For example, pretend I am watching a music video from the 80’s which I know nothing about. In company I want to impress, I say, “Why is it such a thing for 80’s artists to make music videos like this?”
Although I see Sam’s point, I think that the whittiom has many usages which are not self-satisfying like the above example. Like most words and phrases, “that’s a thing” can be used in a variety of ways, and its tone and semantic value depend upon the speaker and the situation.
Sophomore Matthew Meyer agrees, saying that the phrase does not carry a negative attitude out of context. He points out that the whittiom can be used begrudgingly, as in, “I wish that wasn’t a thing.” In this case, the speaker does not claim authority on a topic, but reluctantly acknowledges that the trend or cultural phenomenon in question does undeniably exist.
Despite disagreement over the idiom’s connotation, Whitties seem to agree that “that’s a thing” is used predominantly in informal contexts:
“It’s not something I would say if I was trying to impress someone; it doesn’t sound particularly sophisticated or intelligent,” said sophomore Layla Grice. She continued, “but if I was just hanging out with my friends, I might say it, because it has some cultural significance.”
Sophomore Hunter Pluckebaum expressed a similar sentiment:
“I would never say that to a professor,” she said. “That’s a lie, I would. But not in a professional setting.”
It is interesting that Whitman students like Layla and Hunter would avoid “that’s a thing” in a formal register even though they would not hesitate to use it casually. If students avoid using “that’s a thing” when they are called upon to be descriptive and thorough, the idiom may in fact be uninformational and undescriptive as Sam and Galen claim.
One opinion on the matter remains irrefutable: “Whether you like it or not,” Matthew said, “‘That’s a thing’ is itself a thing.”
Matthew’s insight brings me to a final point: If it remains unclear what a whittiom is, in a word, it is a thing.