The thing is, “thing” once referred to a judicial assembly
Last month we looked at some words that centuries ago were born in the field of law and eventually developed a more general sense. This month we will look at some other terms whose legal roots might surprise you.
While engaging in mayhem will sometimes land one in front of a court of law, we probably associate the word more with a hockey match than a trial. However, the OED informs us that mayhem has proper legal bona fides: “Criminal Law. The infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person's capacity for self-defence; an instance of this.” The word's first citation is found in the Rolls of Parliament (1447): “Where apon growith ofte times‥Roberies, Murthers, mayehemes, and manslauter.” Its first usage to refer to violent behaviour and particularly physical assault is found in Mark Twain's Territorial Enterprise (1870): “This same man‥pantingly threatened me with permanent disfiguring mayhem, if ever again I should introduce his name into print.”
This word in Old English had a specific legal meaning. It referred to a trial in which an accused person was subjected to a test, usually involving physical pain or danger. If you overcame these crucibles it was regarded as divine proof of your innocence. These tests were ordeals by fire, (e.g., carrying heated metal) hot water, (plunging your hands into boiling water) cold water, and combat. It wouldn't be until 1215 that these legal methods were abolished. As in modern-day reality television, these ordeals were somewhat rigged. To be declared innocent one would have to accomplish the impossible, such as carrying red-hot coals without being burned. It was only in the 17th century that ordeal acquired its metaphorical and less painful meaning of a “trying experience.” For example, John Cleveland wrote in The Works of John Cleveland (1687),“The Ordale of the Sword justified Caesar and condemned Pompey not his Cause.”
This long word was one of the favourites of former great hockey announcer Danny Gallivan, but I doubt that even erudite Gallivan knew the word's original sense: “Articles of personal property, especially clothing and ornaments, which (exceptionally at common law) did not automatically transfer from the property of the wife to the husband by virtue of the marriage.” The other segment of her property, her dowry was transferred to her spouse. In his novel The Eustace Diamonds, ( 1871) Anthony Trollope uses the word in a legal sense when the heroine accepts a diamond necklace as a wedding gift from her husband and later tries to keep it as part of her paraphernalia, i.e., “bride's goods.”
In the 18th century the sense was extended to refer to various belongings or accessories, such as what hockey sticks and goalie pads. In the 20th century, the word was often modified by the word drug to refer to the equipment that drug users require.
The OED tells us that in the 14th century engross meant “to write in a peculiar character appropriate to legal documents,” i.e. large lettering. In the 15th century the word meant to buy “in gross,” i.e., “to buy up wholesale; especially to buy up the whole stock, or as much as possible, of (a commodity) for the purpose of .. retailing it at a monopoly price.” (A grocer originally was a dealer in gross). At the end of the 16th century, engross came into its modern sense of absorbing totally.
This king of non-specific word is one of the oldest ones in our language but originally it enjoyed a rather specific meaning a a meeting or an assembly and specifically a judicial assembly. (This judicial sense is seen in the name of the Norwegian Parliament, Storting that means “great thing”). From there it came to refer to a cause brought before such an assembly and soon thereafter to any cause in general. From here it was only a small step for the word to refer to any matter to which one is concerned and later to any deed, circumstance or phenomenon. Its sense, however, to refer to an activity that attracts a particular group, e,g., “'its a guy thing” is fairly modern and the OED's first citation of such only goes back to Nov 9,1967 in the New York Times: “Few whites are travelling to Harlem for entertainment. It's a black thing now.”
The use of thing in a sexual context has deep historical roots. In Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath opines “Our bothe thynges smale/Were eek to knowe a female from a male.” Shakespeare used the word thing often in a bawdy sense even in some seemingly innocuous places. For example when Rosalind uses the phrase “too much of a good thing” in As You Like It, “thing” was also being used as a euphemism for genitalia as it had been in Chaucer's era.
This article is adapted from Howard Richler's recently released How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts published by Ronsdale Press. It is available both as a print and as an ebook.