‘O thou thing!’ says Leontes to his wife Hermione, in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. He means that she is not worthy to be called a person since he believes, mistakenly, that she has been unfaithful to him. This contemptuous use of ‘thing’, applied to a person, seems logical but is by no means typical in modern times.
   The word is usually qualified in some way, and is likely to show pity or affection. ‘Poor thing’ is frequently said to someone in a sympathetic way. This can become ‘you poor thing’, and occur in the plural form as ‘you poor things’.
   In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss a boy calls his sister ‘you greedy thing’, in mild reproach. Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis, has a woman addressing her lover playfully as ‘you bad thing’. Doctor at Sea, by Richard Gordon, has a homosexual male making use of ‘you mean thing’. In Girl with Green Eyes, by Edna O’Brien, ‘you soft, daft, wanton thing’ is used as a verbal caress. ‘Sweet thing’ is similarly used by a boy to a girl in Boulevard Nights, by Dewey Gram.
   Monica Dickens comments on an idiolectal usage in Mariana: ‘another boy who had played in the match, who was a baronet, called everyone “my dear old thing.”’ Perhaps the ultimate proof that ‘thing’ can be used affectionately comes in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, by Angus Wilson. ‘Thing’ is converted into a diminutive form, ‘Thingy’, and used by the children in a family as a nickname for their mother.
   ‘You great bragging thing’, addressed to Festus Derriman by Anne Garland in Hardy’s The Trumpet Major is irritated rather than contemptuous, and has additional interest because of Derriman’s reply, which is a request to be called names. ‘I give you free liberty to say what you will to me. Say I am not a bit of a soldier, or anything! Abuse me - do now, there’s a dear. I’m scum, I’m froth, I’m dirt before the besom - yes!’ Anne refuses to abuse Derriman, whose odd behaviour is perhaps to be explained as a feeling that he needs to be punished for having offended her.
   ‘Old thing’ occurs from time to time, and is always friendly or affectionate. Examples are found in Georgy Girl, by Margaret Forster; No Highway, by Nevil Shute; The Pumpkin Eater, by Penelope Mortimer; A Season In Love, by Peter Draper and War Brides, by Lois Battle. In the last of these the speaker is a young Australian woman consoling her mother. For a journalistic comment an ‘old thing’, see also boy, dear.

A dictionary of epithets and terms of address . . 2015.

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