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The Word

The think thing

What do we have coming, exactly?

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
May 4, 2008

LANGUAGE WATCHERS FOUND plenty to divert them in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's recent speeches, which included comments on dialects and creoles, social judgments of language, and Ted Kennedy's accent.

It was a smaller point that caught my eye, though. The New York Times account of Wright's appearance at the National Press Club quotes him as saying, "If you think I'm going to let you talk about my mama, and her religious tradition . . . you got another thing coming."

The transcript on the Times website also had "another thing coming." So did stories in the Hartford Courant and the Washington Post. But in the Globe, the Chicago Sun-Times, and CNN's transcript, Wright's line was rendered as "you got another think coming."

Did Wright say "think" or "thing"? Only he knows, and at press time, attempts to reach him for comment had not succeeded.

I asked Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, to apply his phonetics expertise to the Wright recordings. But the voice spectrogram is inconclusive, he reports: "There's the 'ng' sound that you'd expect in either 'thing' or 'think,' and then there's a 'k' sound that could be the end of 'think' combined with the start of 'coming,' but it could also be just the start of 'coming.'

"Someone speaking slowly and carefully might release the 'k' of 'think' before starting to say 'coming,' or might glottalize it," Liberman e-mailed. "But in the middle of a fluent phrase, most of us would blend the two k's together, to the point that 'sink carefully' and 'sing carefully' sound pretty much the same. They may feel very different, since you know what you mean to say; but your listeners probably can't tell." (For further discussion, see Liberman's post on the Language Log website.)

But say it or swallow it, "another think coming" is the original version. It's a general-purpose warning, more than a century old, that means "think again," or, more directly, "you're wrong."

Google Books turns up several early examples: In the 1914 novel "Boltwood of Yale," for instance, one man says "I think we'll wait"; the other replies, "Then you've got another think coming to you." H.L. Mencken, in the 1921 edition of "The American Language," cites it as an example of how words shift parts of speech: "The verb to think, in 'he had another think coming,' becomes a noun."

And by 1932, "another think" was widespread enough to earn a reproach in "Words Confused and Misused," by M.H. Weseen: "This misuse of think as a noun is creeping into the speech of many who seem unaware that it is ungrammatical."

But Weseen didn't mean you should use thing instead. That alternative version had already appeared in print - the Oxford English Dictionary finds "another thing coming" as early as 1919 - but it arose, the OED warns, "from misapprehension of to have another think coming."

And the thing version, if Google Books' results are representative, didn't really get rolling till the 1980s. Early in that decade, the two variants went head to head in dueling song titles: Bill Holland's "You've Got Another Think Comin' " vs. Judas Priest's "You've Got Another Thing Comin'. " Over the last quarter of the 20th century, though, think still led thing by about 2 to 1.

In the new millennium, the tables have turned. This "thing" didn't come from outer space, but it has engulfed the older idiom like a hungry blob. In a Nexis news search, "another thing coming" dominates 21st-century usage by nearly 2 to 1; a Google search gives it a 6 to 1 advantage.

And many people today have never heard "another think coming" (or think they haven't, anyway). One of them, posting to a Web discussion, is astonished to hear that "thing" might be an error: "So, what you guys are saying is that this expression I've used my entire life, which is used throughout the Western U.S. and by everyone I know, as well as by Judas Priest, is wrong?"

He has a point: If everyone says "another thing coming," it won't be wrong. And it's not surprising that nobody minds its lack of meaning; we're used to idioms we can no longer decode, like kick the bucket and all the rage.

Still, I'm sorry to see think go. I don't mind revisions of famous quotations ("gild the lily") or proverbs ("the proof is in the pudding"); even epicenter (for "center") doesn't raise my hackles. But "You've got another think coming" is a bit of wordplay; substituting the meaningless "thing" erases the entire point of the phrase. Unfortunately, it looks inevitable - for now.

But if the moving finger of usage writes, it also rewrites. Maybe in another 50 years, people will return to hearing "another thing coming" as "another think," and writing it that way. The "thing" people will snort and whine and quote that ancient source, Judas Priest, but to no avail; the new rebels will use think, and they'll explain why it's logical: "See, if he thought that, he has another think coming - get it?"

Or maybe not. But I can dream, can't I?

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