CHUMBAWAMBA guitarist Boff told the Evening Standard last week that Danbert Nobacon and John Prescott had "a long-running thing". Those not immediately in the know might conclude that the couple were, well, pretty close, since one of the common meanings of a thing is "an affair". Only the context made it clear that far from loving each other, they didn't get on at all. (An early edition naughtily headed the story SPLOSHED!, which was near enough to sloshed to make careless readers think for a moment that the Deputy Prime Minister had been at the booze, when he had only been innocently drenched by angry Mr Nobacon.)

You may well think it an odd sort of language that has the same word for two entirely opposite meanings - and that popular guitarists ought to get themselves a better vocabulary before giving quotes to the press. But a thing is a rather nice word for an obsession, and hate can be as obsessive as love. Obsession would have been no more helpful than thing, merely a bit posher.

Thing is certainly a versatile word. It can be abstract like the things one has on one's mind, or concrete like all one's things that are consequently left on the train; important, like the play that Hamlet said was the thing, or contemptible, like Delilah in Milton's Samson ("But who is this, what thing of sea or land?").

The thing is, though, why did this particular word come to take all these different roles? The etymologists chase it back to the Anglo-Saxon, when it meant a council or court; the Oxford Dictionary invites us to compare it with similar words in Old Frisian and Norse. It then immediately came to be used of the affairs that were discussed in such councils, and therefore of any matter of concern. It's not clear why it should also have been used of material objects, but when Chumbawamba's guitarist used it he was nearer the original than are people who say "thing" or "thingy" when all they mean is that they can't think of the right word.

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