The Nature of a Thing

As of late 2022, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary had 9 definition categories, almost all of which with subcategories, to define the various conditions in which we use the word “thing”. A word with so many uses might be considered versatile but versatility comes at the risk of being vague and easy to misunderstand. Words with such wide ranges of meaning can become tokens of confusion, not clarity. Context is one of the ways we fortify the meaning of ambiguous words but even this has limited reach. Verbal language only has so much carrying capacity even in the best of conditions.

It’s important to understand what our abstract tokens refer to as precisely as possible if the goal is to effectively communicate and or understand concepts. This is especially critical because we use these abstract maps to render and navigate various environments from physical to social. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of a thing is “an object or entity not precisely designated or capable of being designated. So we use “thing” to refer to something ill-defined but also something well-defined. As in; “Is this a thing?”, “What’s that thing?” and “Use this thing”. We use it to refer to objective forms that we classify as inanimate objects, to distinguish these things from what we call living things.1 Ironically we use the word for the reverse too. We call biological organisms living things to distinguish them from what we classify as non-living things. As in; “Not a living thing in sight.”

Thing is also used to refer to separate and distinct individual qualities, facts, ideas, or entities. As in; “The essence of the thing.”, ”Love is a thing.” It can be used to refer to a concrete entity as distinguished from its appearances. “The substance of the thing.” Spatial entities are also referred to as things. “Space is a thing.” It can refer to a quality like; “The most important thing.” It can be requirements as in “Things to do.”, the state of affairs, as in; “How are things?” or “Things are improving.” and “This thing can be looked at another way.” A thing can refer to an event. It can be possessions, articles of clothing, equipment, utensils, or associated items like; “Bring things for the party.” It can be actions, a reference to purpose, or entire sets of behaviors. “Doing your own thing.” It can refer to an emphasis, a personality quirk, or the object of the quirk. “It’s his thing.” It can be a detail, a material, a substance, an idea, a bit of information, and the proper or fashionable way of behaving, talking, or dressing.

Things are complicated.


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