Sunday 21 September 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Sostenuto)

Son (a few months ago): Es que hay muchas cosas que yo no puedo decir... (It's just, there are so many things I don't know how to say...)

Daughter (a few months ago, too): Hay algo que quiero decir... (There's something I want to say...)

Daughter ( a couple of weeks ago): Es la cosita que va dentro... (It's that thingy that goes inside...)

Have you noticed anything strange in the comments above? No? Then, brace yourselves, for you have already fallen prey to a devastating linguistic disease, somethingism and thingism.

THING AND SOMETHING defines the word thing as:

1. a material object without life or consciousness; an inanimate object.

2. some entity, object, or creature that is not or cannot be specifically designated or precisely described.

3. anything that is or may become an object of thought.

whereas something is:

1. some thing; a certain undetermined or unspecified thing.

2. an additional amount, as of cents or minutes, that is unknown, unspecified, or forgotten

However, what neither definition addresses is the condition that affects most of us at some point in our lives: the overuse of 'thing' and 'something'.

When I was in year 12 in college we learnt the name of this particular linguistic malaise: 'cosismo' in Spanish ('thingism', I made that word up in English) and 'alguismo' ('somethingism', yup, I made that one up, too). The cause is poor vocabulary, the consequences are far worse as this phenomenon will leave you with an even a poorer lexicon than the one you had (or did not have) before.

I am as guilty as anyone else of having indulged in this little linguistic peccadillo every so often. When one's mind is tired, the last thing (you see?) you want to struggle with is a word that will fit into your speech pattern ever so perfectly and cleverly at the right time and in the right situation. That's why we have 'thing' and 'something'. They are cushions for linguistic comfort. But I do remember that as a seventeen-year-old I was impressed by how many words we obliterate from our vocabulary so that 'thing' and 'something' could have their right of way.

And it's not just my children who bask in this linguistic extravagance, but as the examples below aver, national newspapers columnists revel in their 'thingisms' and 'somethingisms' just as, or rather, more than anyone else.

'Still time for President Bush to achieve something positive (...) Bush also needs to say something soon about whether, if taxpayers’ money is used to bail out banks (...) Bush’s instinct to do little is not the worst one around, in the chorus of calls to do something dramatic.... (Bronwen Maddox, The Times, 28th March)'

'The real elephant in the room, the massive thing we don't talk about (Jude Rogers, The Guardian, Fri 19th Sep)'

'Boris Johnson has publicised 'cost-cutting' since becoming Mayor of London. Now I'm told he's invited tenders for 'well-being workshops' to support staff in dealing with the cuts he's making. Isn't this the sort of thing he's supposed to find ridiculous? (Oliver Marre, The Observer, 21st Sep)'

Nor is this phenomenon confined to just English and Spanish. In French they have 'chose' and 'quelquechose' and in German it is 'etwas'.

something, thing, thingy (this last term is one of my pet hates). Is this the future of language? You might think that I am behaving like an old, grumpy linguist whose attire includes a tweed jacket and a pair of corduroy trousers, but no, my concern, primarily, is about the beauty of language, whether it be English, French or Spanish. Whilst we talk we are prone to repeating words for emphasis, leaving blanks in sentences for the other person to fill in, and using our hands and heads as substitutes for spoken phrases. That's fine. But, how about when we sit down to write letters, articles or posts on our blogs? How many of us have a thesaurus on hand to give us some help in order to embellish our columns? It's not about being bookish, it's about not throwing the book away. And if you don't believe me, I will use the examples I've given so far, including Son and Daughter's, to illustrate how there's no excuse for linguistic laziness.

It's just, there are so many things I don't know how to say... (change things for phrases/words/terms)

There's something I want to say... (How about: I would like to make a comment? Or: there's an issue I would like to discuss)

It's that thingy that goes inside... (Change thingy for tool, piece, or whatever it is that applies to the part that is being described)

In the case of the newspapers articles, my suggestions run thus:

The Times: In the case of the first 'something' I would write 'to achieve a positive arrangement/to have a positive outcome'. The second one I would change to 'Bush needs to come clear...' The third one is slightly more difficult to change, I think that 'something' does play an important role in this case because it emphasises the urgency of the issue discussed, so, I shall leave it the way it is.

The Guardian: I would change 'thing' for 'issue' or 'topic', 'problem', 'dilemma'.

The Observer: The minute I read it today two were words flashed up in my brain, 'situation and 'scenario'.

So, there you have it, easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Not a hard thing to do, eh? Beg your pardon! Not a hard... hard... hard... task to accomplish, eh?

Copyright 2008


  1. :-D

    i love this post and am certainly guilty of the very same


    i'm also guilty of the overuse of those two words and honestly never really thought about it til now.

    your'e brilliant for posting this. now i'm gonna nake a conscious effort to do better in the vocabulary department.

    (love how you made the connection across cultures, too)

  2. *laughing* Guilty as charged! And, I'm a hypocrite to boot.
    I often force my children to replace "something" and "thing" with words more befitting, only to later add, "How many times do I have to tell you the same thing?"

  3. Hahaha! Thanks, fly and T. I must admit that when I talk I do use both, but, just like fly mentioned I do look out for overuse.

    T, you're not the only 'linguistic hypocrite'. I am guilty of the same sin. I insist that my children try to use as varied a vocabulary as there is (despite the fact that one is ten and the other one is only seven) but then I commit the same fault I charged them with moments before.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  4. This was brilliant! And sadly, it hit home. Guilty as charged. Especially with thingy. I know I'm tired when I hear that word slip from my tongue.

    Thanks for the laugh...

  5. Thanks for visiting, diva. I do have to own up to saying 'thingy' once in a while (looks down to the floor and places both hands in front of body as he swings from side to side).

    Greetings from London.

  6. Oh, that was great!!! So true. I know both you and I are readers. So why this thing? LOL.

    Cuentame como te gusta el libro, estoy por comprarlo.

  7. touché ! i love your linguist posts...

    look i just came to say hello and "something" short (am in middle of a translation about the depressing non ending subprime mess)

    will give you more details later about Casa Angela. It's very far from Bubion. it's near the coast in Nerja.

    rasta luego

  8. Hello, yoli, thanks for popping by. Me encanta el libro, Rushdie tiene una imaginacion increible!

    Saludos desde Londres.

  9. Hello, castle, you're very welcome. I will pop by your blog later.

    Greetings from London.

  10. Qué tal, Cuban!

    Totalmente de acuerdo. Siempre trato de sustituir las palabras que comentas aquí por un sustantivo apropiado según el tema... pero a veces se me van y le doy vueltas a "cosa", "algo", etc....

    Muy buen post!!!

  11. Ciro, agu, me parece que todos somos victimas del mismo fenomeno cuando hablamos. El ejemplo mejor que tengo es cuando en Cuba decimos: Como esta la cosa?"

    Pero cuando uno se sienta a escribir la situacion cambia, o al menos debe cambiar. Tenemos mas tiempo, podemos ponerle mas atencion al vocabulario.

    Gracias por pasar.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  12. Well, eventually we'll work it out, things change, don't they? What can I say to replace "things" in this case? Just for a laugh, you are great!

  13. Amé esta entrada, me identifica plenamente...Preciosa manera de contar una gran verdad. Felicidades.
    We are multi-lingual and multi-cultural too and we are all guilty as charged - every now and then, we have days where we just give up, we speak mumbo-jumbo, but, as we all seem to understand the gist of what's being said..!
    Just discovered your great blog - e back asap..:)

  14. Yes, yoana, you could have swapped 'things' for 'situations'! Just joking :-D

    Thanks for popping by.

    Here, there, thanks for popping by, you're very welcome.

    Greetings from London.

  15. ;-)))) really hard, indeed Hola Cuban, just to say hello, pero echo una carcajada contigo. estoy un poco perdía pero I ll be back, un beso

  16. Entiendo la "cosa" pero me suenan mejor thing and something, JA JA

  17. Hello, karina an betty. Gracias por sus comentarios. betty, APARECE. mi'ja :-)

    karina, bienvenida.

    Saludos desde Londres.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...