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When did the term "my thing" as in "that is my thing" come into usage?

Merriam-Webster offers very little help and limits itself to saying

thing
7 a : something (such as an activity) that makes a strong appeal to the individual: forte, specialty

  • letting students do their own thing —Newsweek
  • I think travelling is very much a novelist's thing —Philip Larkin

and further on

10 : an action or interest especially that someone enjoys very much

  • Music is my thing.
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'My thing' as my métier, in 1841 and after

The 1841 reference to "do your thing" that Josh61 cites appears to be a reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance," first published in 1841. Here is the relevant piece of that essay:

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for he whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you, is, that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the Government or against or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers,—under all these screens, I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. And of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your thing, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A man must consider what a blind-man's-buff is this game of conformity.

Why Ralph, you old hippie, you! Down with conformity; do your thing; tune in, turn on, drop out! I don't know whether Emerson's comment had any influence on the emergence of the phrase "do your thing" in the 1960s and 1970s, but a lot of young people read Emerson then (for school), and I was very pleasantly surprised to see how prescient his 1841 use of "do your thing" was.

To demonstrate that Emerson was not the only pre-1960s person to use "[one's] thing" in the sense of one's interest or area of activity, I offer this example from Daphne Du Maurier, I'll Never Be Young Again (1932) [combined snippets]:

Perhaps she had been frightened at living alone in the rooms by herself. I had sent her a letter the first day of my arrival in London, and nothing after that. She must have known that letters were not my thing, she surely had not expected to hear from me every day. She knew I would come back. That was all that mattered.


'Your thing' as a proclivity or special interest, in the 1960s and 1970s music lyrics

There are actually two strains of meaning to "my thing"/"your thing" as used in the 1960s and 1970s. One is the laid-back, "following my own path" sense of the phrase, which finds expression in the Bob Dylan song "If Dogs Run Free," from his album New Morning (1970). Sample lyrics:

If dogs run free, then why not we/Across the swooping plain?/My ears hear a symphony/Of two mules, trains and rain./The best is always yet to come,/That's what they explain to me./Just do your thing, you'll be king,/If dogs run free.

Isaac Hayes's "Do Your Thing" (1971) takes a a broad view of what your thing might be:

If the music make you move,/'cause you can really groove/Then groove on, groove on/ If you feel like you wanna make love/Under the stars above/Love on, love on/If there's something you wanna say,/And talkin' is the only way/Rap on, oh, rap on/'Cause whatever you do,/Oh, you've got to do your thing


A 'thing' as an intimate relationship in 1960s and 1970s lyrics

In one sense, a thing could refer simply to an intimate relationship, as in Simon & Garfunkel's "We've Got a Groovy Thing Goin'" (from the duo's 1966 album Sounds of Silence):

We got a groovy thing goin' baby, got a groovy thing.

Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones" (1972) is somewhat more forthright about the relationship there:

Me and Mrs Jones, we got a thing going on/We both know that it's wrong/But it's much too strong to let it go now


'My thing' as a source of sexual desire or jealousy in 1960s and 1970s lyrics

Somewhat suggestive of the same notion is the Isley Brothers' 1969 song "It's Your Thing," but here the thing isn't necessarily just a proclivity or a relationship but (suggestively) also corporeal:

It's your thing/Do what you wanna do/I can't tell you/Who to sock it to.

That same year, Marva Whitney released a response song titled "It's My Thing (You Can't Tell Me Who to Sock It To), which puts considerable emphasize on the notion that possessing one's own thing leads as a matter of natural right to freedom of choice in the choice of a sockee.

In 1973 Sylvia Robinson included a song titled "My Thing" on her Pillow Talk album, where the phrase seems to refer either to her special relationship or to the person himself:

I told you girl, he's my special prize./When I turn my back,/You want to try him on for size./I don't want nobody in the world,/Messin' around with my thing,/My sweet, tender, lovin', groovy thing./(She don't want nobody in the world,/Messin' around with her thing.)/Hands off, you hear me./Leave my thing alone.

And in 1974, James Brown released "My Thang," which offers the following lyrical advice:

If you wanna get down with a broad/This is the way you do it/Walk up and rap to her/Put your hand on her lower left arm/You know/And this is what you rap to her/I mean, come on like you should/Come on with your come on/Gimme, gimme your thing/Gimme, gimme my thing/Gimme, gimme my thing/Feels so good, let's get it on/Gimme


'My thing' as a source of sexual desire in 18th-century lyrics

Somewhat surprisingly, this last sense of "my thing" goes back to the English folk song tradition as the lyrics to "My Thing Is My Own" indicate. This is how the song begins:

I a tender young Maid have been courted by many,/Of all sorts and Trades as ever was any:/A spruce Haberdasher first spake me fair,/But I would have nothing to do with Small ware./My Thing is my Own, and I'll keep it so still,/Yet other young Lasses may do what they will.

This song appears in Henry Playford, Wit and Mirth: Or, Pills to Purge Melancholy; Being a Collection of the Best Merry Ballads and Songs Old and New, volume 4 (1719), and may it may be considerably older than that.


Conclusion

These examples—especially Emerson's from 1841 and Playford's from 1719—indicate that "my thing"/"your thing" has been around for centuries, with various colloquial meanings attached to it. The word thing invites both generalized and euphemistic usage, so it really isn't surprising that people have been taking advantage of those flexible features for a long time.

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  • Very nice discussion. The motivation for my asking was that my wife pointed out during a recent episode of the television series "Downton Abbey" that one of the characters stated that racing was "not my thing." She thought that an anachronism. I know that Julian Fellowes, the author of Downton Abbey series, is meticulous in researching customs, mannerisms and speech of the era about which he writes. So I wondered. Apparently it is not necessarily an anachronism. – Michael Gallagher Feb 13 '15 at 13:21
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    @MichaelGallagher: Yes, in Google Books search results, I find this example of the expression from Daphne Du Maurier, I'll never be young Again (1932): "Perhaps she had been frightened at living alone in the rooms by herself. I had sent her a letter the first day of my arrival in London, and nothing after that. She must have known that letters were not my thing, she surely had not expected to hear from me every day." I'll add that example to my answer, since it provides some continuity between Emerson and the 1960s. – Sven Yargs Feb 13 '15 at 16:42
  • I caught the same anachronism in "Downton Abbey." Regardless of its predated origins, I still maintain it was an unintentional gaffe. Its doubtful the character who spoke the line was familiar with Emerson. Further doubtful is the expression's entrance into common parlance at that time. I think Fellowes slipped up on this one, but of course, we'll never know for certain. – user113930 Mar 16 '15 at 20:49
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(One's) thing:

  • something that one enjoys.

  • a notable personal characteristic.

My thing: According to Etymonline, the phrase, in its various versions, became popular in the sixties, but seems to have a much older origin.

  • Phrase do your thing "follow your particular predilection," though associated with hippie-speak of 1960s is attested from 1841.

The following extract offers more clues:

  • I believe we went from the phrase "We had a good thing" which was contracted to "We had a thing", as a way of describing a romantic relationship. In essence "relationship" was swapped out for "thing" and all the ambiguity and mystery that comes with replacing a more descriptive noun for an ambiguous one. At some point, the object of the relationship was substituted for something else that the subject of the sentence was consumed by.

  • This led to usage like, "skateboarding, its my thing". From there it was a simple extension to refer to obsessions or fads as someone's "thing" and ultimately to the usage you cite.

  • From song lyrics I can firmly peg "we had a good thing" to the late 60's and there is a song titled "we had a thing" from 1993. I would peg the usage you are interested in to 2000 when Michael Lewis released: The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story. To me this was probably where the phrase seeped into the pop non-fiction media subconscious.

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  • Etymonline doesn't reference that 1841 attestation, so I have reservations about equating that to the mid-60s counter culture's usage of "Do your own thing." – user98990 Feb 12 '15 at 12:31
  • The 1841 attestation needs reference ( I say 'seems to have' in my answer). As for the hippy usage, I think it is close/related to the current one ) – user66974 Feb 12 '15 at 12:41
  • Yes +1, that was not meant as criticism just a personal message. I think the latest incarnation is more relative to the 1965-75 counter culture (my culture) than the 1965-75 phrase is to the 1841. But I have only the "vibes" to go on. – user98990 Feb 12 '15 at 13:01
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Ngrams shows the phrase "my thing" coming into popularity during the 1960s into the early 1970s, then another jump starting around 1988.

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  • 2
    that's my thing AmEng corpus – Mari-Lou A Feb 12 '15 at 11:50
  • +1 but you should try to "flesh-out" your answer - provide more detail and reference. – user98990 Feb 12 '15 at 13:04
  • My thing is whatever bag I'm into. – Wayfaring Stranger Feb 12 '15 at 14:36
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The phrase "do your own thing" was popularized, and possibly originated from, a rock musical by the name "Your Own Thing", by Danny Apolinar and Hal Hester, which opened off-Broadway in the Orpheum Theater in January 1968 and ran there for over two years. It was an irreverant, witty and tuneful show based loosely on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the year's best musical. There were also multiple touring companies performing it across the USA and Canada at that time.

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  • Hello, Jake. This adds little to previous 'answers' (the question is about the origin of the phrase, not increase in popularity. Though it would make a good 'comment' here, containing interesting related information. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 6 '17 at 15:07

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