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I came across an unfamiliar word to me, thisness in the following sentence of New Yorker magazine’s (April 19) article titled, What We’re Reading: Buzzfeed, “Pulphead,” Chekhov, and More”

James Wood explains why the selection and elaboration of seemingly irrelevant detail is what makes fiction real. Details that appear true, he writes, have a quality of “thisness.”

By thisness, I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concreteness….

By thisness I mean the moment when Emma Bovary fondles the satin slippers she danced in weeks before at the great ball at LaVaubyessard. Thisness is often used to puncture ceremonies like funerals and dinners that are designed precisely to euphemize thisness; what Tolstoy calls making a bad smell in the drawing room.

Though none of Oxford, Cambridge, and Merriam Webster English dictionary registers the word, thisness, I found the definition of thisness, in Wikipedia which defines it as the translation from Latin, haecceitus meaning the qualities, properties or characteristics of a thing which make it a particular thing.

Is thisness, a popular English word? If thisness has currency, can we say thatness, theyness, or even I-ness, we-ness, here-ness, there-ness?

Isn’t there smoother and more familiar word than thisness, which sounds somewhat crude to me?

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Your question seems to contain a better answer than anyone else can provide. – Kris Apr 20 '12 at 3:43
Cool question; cool quote. – J.R. Apr 20 '12 at 9:11
up vote 10 down vote accepted

Thisness is a nonce word formed by adding the suffix -ness to the pronoun this. Normally pronouns can't take suffixes, which is why thisness is not really a formally accepted word. The meaning is clear enough, though, which is why the New Yorker was willing to use it in a quote.

If you're looking for a formally accepted alternative, you could use quiddity or haecceity. These words have the opposite problem of thisness: hardly anybody knows these words or understands what they mean, but they are nonetheless words which you can find in the dictionary.

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Thisness is not a commonly used or understood word, as is evident from the cited text where it is first used in quote marks and then followed by two whole paragraphs to explain, with examples, what it really means.

It's rareness also explains why it is listed in the OED, which defines usage and lists many more words than in "everyday" dictionaries. This is not necessarily a bad thing; see my answer about therf werre eyght bokes for why you wouldn't want the OED as your spellchecker.

A synonym could be realism, believability, and antonymic phrase is breaking the fourth wall: for example when an actor in a play or television programme suddenly turns to us, the viewers, and addresses us directly -- it jolts our suspension of disbelief.

And finally, another thing that demonstrates its uncommonness is the difference in meaning between James Wood's personal definition of thisness ("the selection and elaboration of seemingly irrelevant detail is what makes fiction real") and that defined by the OED and Wikipedia (haecceity, "The quality of being ‘this’ (as distinct from anything else)").

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Additional question: How different is "the quality of being 'this'" from "the reason for being 'this'"? – Yoichi Oishi Apr 20 '12 at 10:08

The OED records thisness as meaning ‘The quality of being ‘this’ (as distinct from anything else)’ and gives haecceity (from Latin haec) as a synonym. The earliest citation for ‘thisness’ is dated 1643.

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When I checked Oxford Dictionary Online before posting the question, “thisness” was rejected as “not found.” Seeing your answer I revisited ODO and faced endless lines of gabbled codes this time. There was a glitch. I don’t know why. I rechecked Oxford Advance Learner’s Dictionary (2000 Edition) at hand and Cambridge Dictionary Online. Again neither registers “thisness.” Though I’m now pretty clear about the meaning of ‘thisness,’ it doesn’t seem for me to have so many opportunities to use this word. – Yoichi Oishi Apr 20 '12 at 8:58
@Yoichi Oishi: I use the online OED at: oed.com. – Barrie England Apr 20 '12 at 9:22

The 13th-century philosopher Duns Scotus has much to say on thisness (although, of course, he used the word haecceitas as he was writing in Latin). As far as I know, scholars writing on Duns tend to use both terms, thisness and haecceity, but the latter is far more technical.

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