A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Person, Place, Thing
You're right on the money if you guess that this month's Lounge has something to do with nouns. Specifically, we've been digging up data on these very three nouns — person, place, thing — as a result of hearing a news snippet on the radio a few weeks ago, when a speaker characterized a situation as "a Kumbaya thing." Huh? What exactly is a Kumbaya thing?
We'll return to that a bit later, but the interesting subject that this lexical artifact illuminates for us is the way that speakers modify these three generic and extremely common nouns — person, place, thing — by dropping another noun in front of them and thereby telegraphing a boatload of meaning in a small space — though not always unambiguously.
There's no challenge in sticking an adjective before a noun in English — you could say that's where adjectives belong. So when we use another noun instead to modify a noun, it is presumably because no adjective would do the job as well. This sleight-of-word is carried off most straightforwardly with person. The shorthand accomplished by the construction [(noun) + person] can usually be expanded semantically in the most general way to [person who likes or enjoys (noun)], as the most common person companions show:
|morning person||television person|
|night person||gun person|
|cat person||computer person|
|dog person||people person|
A subclass of this construction, in which the attributive spot is filled by the name of a food or dish, characterizes a person who enjoys or does not enjoy eating the named thing: "I'm not a crab person."
Attributive nouns popularly placed before place seem to fall into two categories: gerunds and other. The [(gerund) + place] construction typically expands semantically to [place where someone/people (verb of the underlying gerund)]. Thus, meeting place, gathering place, and hiding place are all among the most common compounds. If the attributive noun is not a gerund, a likely filler is a consumable, where the translation is [establishment where (noun) is served/sold], as in steak/fish/ice cream/barbecue place.
Thing, the most general noun of the trio, is not so easy to pin down. Any among its many glosses in the VT (a special situation; an action; an artifact; an event; a special abstraction, etc.) can be the intended meaning when a noun precedes thing, but the semantic expansion of these phrases is a grab bag. Consider the most common noun + thing pairs: how would you define them?
|guy thing||team thing
|age thing||girl thing|
|family thing||boy thing|
|confidence thing||nostalgia thing|
|ego thing||love thing|
Without context you have to shoot in the dark to some degree. With context, many of these thing compounds turn out to be polysemous. What, for example, is a guy thing: behavior, situation, or personality trait? It can be any of these, depending on the context:
When less frequently-occurring nouns appear before thing, the intended meaning can often border on obscurity; without some context, native speakers would rightly conclude that the meaning is not clear; even with context, nonnative speakers probably scratch their heads. Consider these sentences, pulled out of a corpus:
- She plays both parts in the play; it's a reincarnation thing.
- We were excited, and when it was explained to us, the effects our visit would have, it was a pride thing.
- I'm not sure Lebanon or the Arab world can be a democracy. It's a mentality thing.
- I just don't want to make it a Hollywood thing, making it an orchid heist thing ... changing the orchids into poppies and making it about drug running.
- The reference to equal opportunity is evident when the dean tells Kid that "this isn't a black thing, it 's a deadbeat thing."
- I always respond better to a well-made book as an art object itself as well as something to just be read, too. It's an added-value thing.
- Robert Jordan resents how Pilar turns it into a gypsy thing, for he does not believe in the mysterious, and says that he wants less mysteries and more work.
- She knew it was a liver thing, but she didn't have adequate medical information and didn't think it was very dangerous.
- "Yeah, it 's risky, but it becomes a self-preservation thing after a while," Spc. Murray added.
The first thing that might occur to you after reading these citations is that they are mainly revealing about the fact that thing is a symptom of laziness or lack of imagination, in which the speaker or writer fails to find a more specific word, or doesn't bother to look for one, to replace thing. On the other hand, it would rob English of a measure of its hallmark punchiness and conciseness if speakers did not have the noun + thing option and had to say, for example:
- She plays both parts in the film; it's a representation of reincarnation.
- We were excited, and when it was explained to us, the effects our visit would have, it was a matter of pride.
- I'm not sure Lebanon or the Arab world can be a democracy. It's a situation in which mentality has a dominant influence.
So what is a Kumbaya thing? Dictionaries generally don't define Kumbaya or cover the figurative expression "sing Kumbaya," though it's high time they did: it's widely used and has already escaped the narrow confines of its canonical form, as can be seen in these citations:
- Arena Stage had a major kumbaya moment last week that brought out the best in everyone.
- To sow the seeds of cross-cultural comity, clumsily conjugating a verb may prove more effective than a thousand choruses of Kumbaya.
- We had Ann Lewis on earlier tonight and she was saying, "You know, this is kumbaya for the Democrats."
- I think the 3½ weeks going forward actually are — sorry to sound too kumbaya here — a healing part, where she has ratcheted down her rhetoric about him.
The Wikipedia article about the song "Kumbaya" notes that it is "cited or alluded to in satirical, sarcastic or even cynical ways that suggest blind or false moralizing, hypocrisy, or naively optimistic views of the world and human nature." So, armed with this knowledge (which it is probably fair to characterize as part of the syllabus of Anglophone cultural literacy), a fluent reader or listener exposed to kumbaya thing will probably supply a semantic box for it consisting roughly of "a situation, action, event, or behavior in which blind or false moralizing, hypocrisy, or naively optimistic views of the world and human nature play a significant role." In which case, it's fortunate for everyone that speakers and writers can resort to the shorthand of the attributive noun + generic noun construction: it's an economy thing.