The ‘Thing’: An Etymological History

In the Old Norse, English, and Dutch, an assembly was called a Ding (or Thing). A gathering between assemblies would be known as the Althing. Assemblies were meant to settle disputes and find consensus. The Latin-based languages had a different word for this phenomenon. Their word was ‘parliament’, derived from the French verb parler – to speak – thus emphasizing the means of communication within the gathering rather than the equality of those present at the meeting.

Gradually, ‘thing’ lost its meaning as ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering’ and instead became synonymous with ‘personal possession’ and, later on, ‘object’. We can view this shift in definition as an apt metaphor for the shift in thinking towards an anthropocentric worldview.

As Mankind evolved it began experiencing a world where, slowly but surely, more and more lay within its reach. Man became master of the Earth and rose to the top of the species pyramid. The physical and natural world that had defined our possibilities as a species since the beginning of Time no longer constrained us. In this paradigm shift, we began altering, whether actively or passively, the way we viewed ourselves in relation to the ‘things’ around us. As our thinking changed, so did our language. Gradually, ‘thing’ lost its meaning as ‘assembly’ or ‘gathering’ and instead became synonymous with ‘personal possession’ and, later on, ‘object’. We began Othering the plants, animals and objects that coexisted with us and, later on, structured the very basis of our societies around ownership over these things.