A couple of weeks back, NPR’s “All Things Considered” ran a piece about the word random. It definitely was something I would be expected to like. After all, I am the NPR guy di tutti NPR guys. All the presets on my kitchen table radio are set to different public radio stations. On Twitter, I follow Steve Inskeep, Mike Pesca, David Folkenflik, and Don Gonyea. (I even know how to spell their names.) And I’m pretty interested in language as well.
But the piece was disappointing. It basically seemed to be about the fact that random has come to refer not only to an action made without deliberation or an event not following a pattern (the traditional meaning) but also, in the OED’s words, to something “Peculiar, strange; nonsensical, unpredictable, or inexplicable; unexpected.” The trouble is, that meaning has been around at least since 1988, the date of this OED citation from The New York Times: “‘This really random guy’ would not be a flattering way of describing a new acquaintance.” Six years later, as the NPR story itself noted, a character in the movie Clueless referred to a “pretty random fiesta.”
But even though it covered quarter-century-old news, something in the NPR piece caught my interest. It was an excerpt from a YouTube bit about random by a comedian named Spencer Thompson:
What struck me was something he said at about the 18-second mark, in a mocking sort of Valley girl voice: “‘Oh my God. I met this random on the way home.’ First of all, it’s not a noun. I don’t know when that became a thing.”
When that became a thing. The phrase bounced around my brain with a familiar clang. I realized I had heard my daughters saying it, had heard it on TV, had probably even said it myself. A short time later, I turned on Twitter and there it was again, in the feed of Editor in Chief Jacob Weisberg of Slate. (In the aftermath of the recent horrific Manhattan subway incident, #nyfears were being exchanged, and someone had brought up the prospect of encountering exposed electrical wires.)
But what does it mean? Google helpfully sent me to a message board at the Web site The Straight Dope, where last May “Kazinga” posted:
“Is this a thing?”
I’ve seen this usage pop up on the Intertubes in the past year or two, apparently as a means of indicating skepticism over whether a certain phenomenon is real or genuine. Did it have some particular origin? How do you read it, have you ever used it, and what do you think of it? Will it last?
In short, is this a thing?
One of the respondents linked to an Urban Dictionary definition, dated December 2011 (and which used that, a more common pronoun for the phrase than this:)
An action, fashion style, philosophy, musical genre, or other popularly recognized subsection of popular culture. Normally used in surprise at it’s existence. Becomes official when a wikipedia article is created for it.
“Whats the deal with those skin-tight body suits?”
“Oh, you mean Zentai?
“Huh. I didn’t know that was a thing.”
Another helpfully did some heavy-duty Googling of his or her own, noted that a majority of hits “more clearly fit into the ‘does this thing exist? category than the ‘is this a trend?’ category,” and gave these examples:
- Why is this a thing? (A blog featuring questionable inventions.) Existence
- Is this a thing? Men’s Pantie Stocking (NSFW). (Questions if the manufacturer of the pictured item exists.) Existence
- Why is this a thing? (Strange picture in a video game.) Existence
- Is this a thing? Is a brain dvr – a thing yet? I want one so bad! Existence
The distinction has applied through the history of the phrase; and I’ll note that the “existence” meaning is an elision of the traditional “(there is/is there) such a thing as…” The first occurrence I’ve been able to find was in a 2001 episode of That ’70s Show, involving a pick-up basketball game:
DONNA: Oh! That’s 16 for me and Hyde and four for the losers! You guys ought to get a mascot … a big, green, furry loser!
ERIC: That’s … That’s not even a thing.
But that seems to have been an outlier, with the next use not occurring till February 2007, when the LAist blog asked: “Is jazzy folk even a thing?” The phrase started to take off, most often with that insinuated even (a rich, under-studied word in contemporary youth parlance). In 2008 someone expressed this thought on Tyra Banks’ talk show (I retain the all-caps format with which the Global Network Database delivered the text to Lexis-Nexis): “IF YOU FIND A GUY I AM INTO, IT’S LIKE, WOW, YOU ARE REALLY CUTE. AND I JUST FALL SO FAST. IS THAT REALLY EVEN A THING, TO FALL FOR SOMEONE, LIKE LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT?”
In 2009, the always verbally observant and inventive sitcom 30 Rock took ownership of the phrase, notably by having one character say it two separate times in an April episode:
Pete: Somehow Kenneth ate strawberries again and now he’s gone into acute strawberry shock.
Jenna: Is that a thing?
Toofer: Or you might, once again, feel the righteous wrath of… the Pranskmen. They all put on fedoras with feathers.
Jenna: Is that a thing?
Last year, the inevitable “Is That a Thing?” Tumblr appeared, and–possibly explaining the Jacob Weisberg thing–Slate initiated an “Is That a Thing?” rubric on its video service, Slate V. (Two examples: “Male Engagement Rings” and “Men Who Like My Little Pony.”) And now, it’s being appropriated by Lingua Franca bloggers and mediocre Canadian comedians.
What does it all mean? Probably not too much, except that the fungible fecundity of American argot is a pretty incredible thing.