things in translation


If people are still reading amidst the press of finals, travel plans, etc–given that we’re a fairly multilingual group, I’d be curious to hear what others have to say about the question raised at the end of our session on Heidegger, on the etymologies or uses of words for “thing” in different languages.  It caught my attention because of my ongoing amusement/frustration with respect to the sheer range of uses for “şey”, the Turkish word for thing.  I don’t know much about the etymology of şey, aside from that it apparently comes from an Arabic root.  But in addition to meaning thing (and appearing in compound forms like something, nothing and so forth) şey functions as a filler word of sorts, dropped into the sentence by a speaker pausing to search for the right word, or displaying an expressive hesitancy.  It’s a bit comparable to well, hmm, like, I mean, you know, that is, etc–perhaps not unlike when English-speakers say, “the thing is that,” and go on to say something else entirely.   Şey can refer to a perfectly concrete material thing, but it can also mark the absence of anything sayable at all.  Anyway, this is all partly an excuse to publish the wonderful, whimsical entry for şey in my Redhouse Turkish-English dictionary:

şey 1. thing. 2. what-do-you-call-it; what-do-you-call-him; whatyoumayjigger, thingumbob, thingamabob, thingumajig, thingummy (used to designate something or someone whose name one has either forgotten but doesn’t know).

In other thing-tidbits, whenever you refer to a film or song as cheesy, you’re using a stepchild of the Hindi-Urdu (and originally Persian) word for thing, चीज़ (chiiz), imported into English via British imperial expansion into South Asia.  I’ve heard people say this is where the expression “the big cheese” comes from, but I’ve also seen its origins attributed to the giant wheels of cheese that Andrew Jackson would periodically set out in the 1830s White House for the public: an intriguing quasi-object, and probably a better story.


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