Sometimes characters will refer to an object, person, event or plan in an extremely ambiguous way, mostly just to screw with the audience. Maybe it's a Running Gag, which will never be revealed, because to do so would ruin a perfectly good joke. Maybe you're seeing events from a particular character's perspective, and because it is integral to the plot that this character doesn't know what this 'thing' is, other people will refer to it in vague terms so as to heighten the suspense and not give away the ending. Maybe it's the cake for a surprise birthday party. Maybe it's a priceless artifact another character is planning to steal. Either way, you won't know what that mysterious 'thing' really is until the most dramatic moment possible.
See Noodle Incident ("Remember 'that time' when..."), Noodle Implements ("'That thing' I plan on doing with all this weird stuff..."). May turn out to be a Chekhov's Gun, involving Foreshadowing. See also Undercover When Alone.
Occasionally related to Buffy Speak, when a character refers to something as a 'thing' due to lack of full knowledge of what said 'thing' actually is. Compare Hurricane of Euphemisms and related tropes, in which the mysterious 'thing' isn't referred to vague terms but in bizarre ones.
Not to be confused with The Thing That Goes "Doink".
- In the movie and play Doubt, characters go out of their way, understandably, to not say the words 'gay' or 'molestation'. They don't even say 'homosexual', which would be the most likely word for that time and place. The closest they really get to saying it out loud is 'the boy's nature' and 'inappropriate relations'. It's actually pretty interesting how they get everyone in the audience to know what they are talking about immediately, without actually putting a name to it.
- Lampshaded in Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Kirk: Bones, there's a thing out there.McCoy: Why is anything we don't understand always called a thing!?
- The MacGuffin in Kiss Me Deadly is only referred to as "Great Whatsit". It's never really explained, but is something nuclear and very deadly.
Lt. Pat Murphy: Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. I'm going to pronounce a few words. They're harmless words. Just a bunch of letters scrambled together. But their meaning is very important. Try to understand what they mean. "Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity."
- In Mercedes Lackey's Owl Trilogy from the Heralds of Valdemar Series, in the second book, everyone dances around the name of the person who is going to be his mage-teacher, simply referring to him as 'your teacher' until they surprise him with the incredibly famous (or infamous) Firesong, only the most powerful mage in the freaking world.
- In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Hagrid tells the bank goblin, "I'm here to pick up the you-know-what in vault 713." It turns out to be the Philosopher's Stone.
- The Big Kill by Mickey Spillane. Mike Hammer is tortured by a gangster boss who believes he has something important. Unfortunately Hammer has no idea what they're talking about, and the boss won't tell Hammer (because his flunkies might hear and he thinks Hammer knows anyway) so Hammer just gets tortured for nothing without getting any closer to solving the mystery.
- Monty Python's Flying Circus did this a few times.
"The Watch will be ready for you at midnight. The watch. The chinese watch..."
- Nudge, Nudge, Wink Wink sketch is mostly about this.
- Another sketch has the British government debating taxing "thingy".
- In the Pirhana Brothers sketch, with a mobster being interviewed by a reporter, and trying to keep a transaction secret:
- Also played with in The IT Crowd when Denholm inexplicably starts wearing ear-plugs:
Denholm: I'M SORRY ROY, I MAY BE SPEAKING LOUDER AT THE MOMENT AS I'M WEARING EAR-PLUGS!
Roy: [confused] Why are you wearing ear-plugs?!
Denholm: HA HA! THAT'S RIGHT!
- Quark. In "All the Emperor's Quasi Norms", Zorgon threatens to kill Quark unless he reveals where "it" is. Having no idea what he's talking about, Quark plays for time by saying it is on a particular asteroid. Turns out "It" really is there, causing Quark to believe this is a case of Because Destiny Says So when he's told by the locals of a legend about a stranger who will use "It" to defeat their enemy. But it turns out that "It" is just a worthless rock and the whole thing is a coincidence.
- "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" by Meat Loaf is often falsely quoted as an example. If fact, each verse has Meatloaf stating two things that he'll do, and one that he will not. The line "I won't do that" simply reiterates that he won't do the thing he has just said he won't do.
- "The Thing" written by Charles Randolph Grean, with the most popular version sung by Phil Harris, has a man describe his experiences finding a box with unspecified contents and being turned away in disgust by everyone who he shows it to. The song is called "The Thing" but the word Thing doesn't actually appear in the song - it's just BOOM BA-BOOM.
- "I Got It From Agnes" by Tom Lehrer. "It" is a venereal disease, and one people got in increasingly disgusting ways.
- "One Thing" by Finger Eleven. Apparently he'd trade it all for that one thing, whatever it is.
- Alternatively, he's trying to find something that would be worth trading away everything else.
- In Robyn Hitchcock's "How Do You Work This Thing?" the function of the device is never defined, although it appears to deflate when used, has a spigot that is easily kinked, does loop-the-loops, and is difficult to turn off.
- "The Marvelous Toy" written by Tom Paxton and covered by several different singers. The unspecified toy has two buttons on the bottom and a twistable lid and is brightly colored.
It went "zip" when it moved
And "bop" when it stopped
And "whirrr" when it stood still
I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will
- The World War 2 song The Thing-Ummy Bob about a female factory worker building some strange war-winning weapon.
"It's a ticklish sort of job making a thing for a thing-ummy-bob
Especially when you don't know what it's for
But it's the girl that makes the thing that drills the hole
that holds the spring that works the thing-ummy-bob
that makes the engines roar.
- During the Hot Springs Episode about halfway through Persona 3, the boys accidentally stay in the hot springs during the girls' time. When the girls of the group show up, a terrified Akihiko exclaims that Mitsuru is going to "execute" them if they're caught. He refuses to explain what "execution" is, but it's apparently something to fear. Should they get caught, the game cuts to about half-an-hour later with the boys are sitting on a bench with their heads low, apparently scarred for life, vowing to never speak of it again.
- One of the files in the Resident Evil remake has John Toleman promising the Groundskeeper "a certain item he had always wanted to get hold on" in exchange for hiding the imitation of a key. The file hints how to find said key, but you never find out what this item is or if the Groundskeeper ever got to enjoy it before turning into a zombie.
- The Eldan of WildStar frequently refer to a mysterious "Project" that created most of the oddities on Nexus, like giant terraformers in the Northern Wilds and Galeras, Metal Maw, a giant killer robot-fish-thing with a laser on its back, and Loftite, a mineral that allows objects to defy gravity.
- The Infocom text adventure based on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy features an item in the player's inventory called "thing your aunt gave you that you don't know what it is". When examined, it turns out to carry the informative label "Made in Ibiza". Any attempt to be rid of it fails; it immediately reappears in the player's inventory.
- In Darths & Droids, Pete has a die that is this. We don't know what its made out of, but its apparently unsafe to roll indoors, must land on a metal tray, and is possibly deadly.
- Baman Piderman occasionally draws attention to "that thing ober there" only for Baman to say he doesn't know what it is.
- Deliberately exploited in one Homestar Runner cartoon, where Strong Bad, Strong Mad, and the Cheat all stand around "Looking at a thing in a bag," and talk about how fascinating it is. There isn't actually anything in the bag—they're just pretending so they can manipulate Homestar into buying stuff for them.
- Played for laughs in EvAbridged 3.0 Rei is (not) Pleased
Makoto: We have visual of the target.Misato: Great! What can you tell me?Makoto: The target appears to be...a thing.Misato: What the hell do you mean, "a thing"?Makoto: It's a...a...thing?Misato: Can none of you three do anything useful around here? Maya!Maya: (talking very fast) Yes! The object is cruising at a steady pace towards Central Dogma. Its constant phase gives it a reflective quality that makes it appear like a massive...thing.
- From Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, 'That thing' that Potamus always sends people. See the quote above.
- Though, in once case it turned out that thing he sends is a motion for discovery, the failure of an opposing lawyer to respond leading to a mistrial.
- The Secret Show had the "Secret Thing" — some sort of small object housed in an orange, candlestick-esque holder. We never found out what it was, all we knew was that it rattled around inside the holder, and that it was very important that T.H.E.M. not get their hands on it. It would frequently show up in random locations as a Freeze-Frame Bonus.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: In "Party of One", Pinkie Pie gets suspicious of all her closest friends making excuses to avoid coming to her party and starts spying on them. They seem to be planning something they want to hide from her, and at one point, Rarity states that "This is obviously going to be so much better" than the party Pinkie was planning. It turns out it's a surprise birthday party for Pinkie — she was so keen to make up an excuse to party that day that she forgot it was her own birthday.
- In Real Life the Manhattan Project created the first atomic bomb. Most people in the Project had no idea what it was making. But for the few who did, they often referred to the bomb as "the gadget" for security reasons. Even when the first two bombs were completed, the messages sent to President Truman referred to them only as "special bombs".