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:

  look at me? " # " You wouldn't understand. It's a 	guy thing	. " # " Whatever. " She dismissed the remark with
  a vehicle, he says, " Owning a truck is kind of a 	guy thing	. It's sitting up high, above the fray " # Mr. Clin
  an I could with 20/20 vision. I got that it was a 	guy thing	, and in its own way, I suppose it was kind of swee
 I guess I'm older. I understand you and Rudy had a 	guy thing	 and I didn't need to know everything about it. But 
      ! 1:33 And that's just... It's, it's almost a 	guy thing	. It's almost like a football player kind of thing. 
  ataking another drink. " I think that's more of a 	guy thing	, the aggression thing. I think- " She flushed a bi
  well, like that. " She shrugged. " Like I said, a 	guy thing	. " " That's very... perceptive of you. " He looked
       woman read (voice-over) And then there's the 	guy thing	. Are women more likely to read a manual than a man
    , pretty much easier said than done because the 	guy thing	... Because all you want is him. All you want is
for the Corvette's popularity. Well, it's kind of a 	guy thing	. I think it probably brings them back to when they 
   thing in the morning. This is just going to be a 	guy thing	. You'd hate it. " " I bet, " said Amy
  utfit. Menswear Musts How to wear the look It's a 	guy thing	 this fall as designers turn tweeds, pinstripes and 
   iends with one of the guys who work here. Do the 	guy thing	 -- talk sports, TV, whatever. You know, we relax 
of the television, cover him up. That seems to be a 	guy thing	, too, and unworthy of a courtmartial. Just think
you are a guy and -- let's face it -- this is not a 	guy thing	. # Blessedly, a female public relations executive 
 to obsessing about food, weight, and looks, it's a 	guy thing	. Here's Troy Roberts. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) I do stuff 
know? I think it's just sort of like an unconscious 	guy thing	. It's something that I would never attribute to a 
               no pun intended ) of staff - it 's a 	guy thing	 , " but not gay " - you have the right 
 some reason, you know, it's like a silly, juvenile 	guy thing	. My guest is Darren Star, creator of the HBO seri
  sing to relinquish it. KATE (making notes) It's a 	guy thing	. INT. LIVING ROOM - NIGHT Leopold asleep on the so
        you think about this suggestion that it's a 	guy thing	? Well, in the early years, my fan mail came in
 grill. You know, it's just like -- it's this whole 	guy thing	, they carve and they grill. So you want to keep t
               ? Oh, I definitely think that it's a 	guy thing	. We have this sort of way of taking things that ar
  that are cops, you know, that whole man thing and 	guy thing	 -- I just get harassed. What are you going to do?
  it.' As if environmental safety were some kind of 	guy thing	, and manliness alone a defense against airborne b
  easts (The Big Mountain raunchiness is not just a 	guy thing	) used to be kept behind the bar. Discerning (i.e.
   Widowers, too. You think manning the remote is a 	guy thing	? Think again, dude. According to ESPN officials, 3
    neer? " she inquired over my shoulder. " It's a 	guy thing	, " I vaguely replied. My definition of stoker owe
 mportant, don't think of heart disease as " just a 	guy thing	. " Teri Walsh # # Alternative Medicine Sprout Your 
 he ship rails and absorbed the destruction. It's a 	guy thing	, better than watching a wrecking ball. # The real 
owing herself into her work will help. But that's a 	guy thing	. She's too distracted to concentrate. # She's 

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.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday March 1st 2010, 6:52 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
Like yeah, it's a thing thing, and your article covers it well.
Monday March 1st 2010, 8:08 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
An intellectual thing and a clever thingy you have written
Monday March 1st 2010, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Charlotte C. (Miami, FL)
Thanks for this eye opener.

Now, can you tell us about what has happened to the word FUN?
Monday March 1st 2010, 8:32 AM
Comment by: Adele C. M. (Charlotte, NC)
"sleight-of-word' -- I like that!
Monday March 1st 2010, 9:01 AM
Comment by: Teresa W.
I've just slipped into my "Happy Place" :)
Monday March 1st 2010, 9:45 AM
Comment by: Jen M. (Spicewood, TX)
I knew exactly what a "Kumbaya-thing" was in the first paragraph. Lazy, maybe, but it gets the job done.
Monday March 1st 2010, 12:38 PM
Comment by: Harvey C. (Little River, CA)
As a word person, this is a good thing.
Monday March 1st 2010, 3:48 PM
Comment by: Juan Carlos R. (MEXICO Mexico)
I am not a blog person, though the article is clever and points out a useful resource. Let me say publicly thanks!
Monday March 1st 2010, 4:11 PM
Comment by: chris P. (tallai Australia)
and I thought I was a'Kumbaya person'.Whoops
Monday March 1st 2010, 5:21 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
What a great article. Admittedly, I am a word person in a happy place, but this is a sheer delight thing.
Monday March 1st 2010, 6:52 PM
Comment by: Design Fish
most commonly followed by, "... you wouldn't understand."
Tuesday March 2nd 2010, 6:47 AM
Comment by: Randy Alexander (Jilin City China)
Very clever article, and kudos for focusing on nouns modifying nouns. Many people believe that a when you modify one noun by putting it in front of another noun, the modifying noun turns into an adjective!

I'm a little surprised you didn't bring up the fact that most people (wrongly) take "person, place, or thing" to be the definition of nouns, so I'll take this opportunity to spread a little grammar propaganda:

Nouns form a category of words that are defined primarily by two different properties. 1) They can be singular or plural. 2) They can be count or uncount.

You can tell if a noun is count or not by whether it can be preceded by a number. "Car" is count because you can say "two cars", but "clothes" is uncount because you cannot say "two clothes". Both these words are plural.

While most nouns are persons, places, or things, there are nouns that cannot be categorized as such, for example "sake" in "do it for my sake". All of the parts of speech are classified by their properties, and not by their meanings.
Tuesday March 2nd 2010, 11:13 AM
Comment by: Ivan P. (Pueblo, CO)
What is the deal with the Abdul thing and what is on his lap as he sits so well behaved in his seat belt. Is it a safety thing?
Tuesday March 2nd 2010, 3:27 PM
Comment by: The Poet (Kellogg, IA)
I grok Ylem it's a chaos thing. The universal slime from whence we "crawled" and to which entropic pressure would relegate us once again.
Quoth the Raven...Nevermore
Wednesday March 3rd 2010, 6:58 PM
Comment by: Jeffery F.
Alas, it's a proofreader thing, I know, but in the following excerpt "... without some context, native speakers would rightly [concluded] that the meaning is ..." "conclude" would seem the better choice. A fun article, nonetheless, in a series I always look forward to.

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Thursday March 4th 2010, 3:56 PM
Comment by: Marc G.
What fun this fun thing has given word people of the world place.
Saturday March 6th 2010, 1:01 AM
Comment by: L B.
Awesome erudition of noun-noun usage. I am often tripped by what one reader commented, "It's a (noun) thing...but you wouldn't understand." Terribly arrogant expression. Stand-up comedians further their careers, however, bumping off intellectual types with this one. Our ever-morphing language is an image/meaning/shorthand/euphemism/denotation/connotation...thing.
Wednesday March 10th 2010, 10:50 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Great piece, funny and on target!
Wednesday March 17th 2010, 10:32 AM
Comment by: Katy P. (Bloomington, MN)
Noun-noun usage is a fun thing; I wish we could stop the carnage done by the misuse -- or should I say non-use -- of adverbs. Eat healthy...or drive safe...make my blood boil. These are so widely used that younger people don't know that they are incorrect. Even advertisers use these phrases in their printed ads and commercials. Do schools even teach the parts of speech any more?
Tuesday April 13th 2010, 3:34 PM
Comment by: Henryk W. (Roedovre Denmark)
Katy P., I would take it easy :-).

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