What Does "The" Mean?

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

It’s the most frequent word in the English language, accounting for around 4 percent of all the words we write or speak. It’s everywhere, all the time, so clearly it must be doing something important. Words have meaning. That’s fundamental, isn’t it? So this word “the,” a word that seems to be supporting a significant portion of the entire weight of our language, what does this word mean? It must mean something, right? 

We can say, roughly, that “the” means the word it is attached to refers to a specific, individual object. When I say “I have the apple,” I mean a certain apple, not just “an apple”—any old apple, or “apples” in general.

But, of course, it’s not quite that easy. Sometimes “the” doesn’t indicate a specific object, but a whole class of objects. When you say you know how to play “the piano” or that exercise is good for “the heart,” there is no specific piano or heart you have in mind. “The pen is mightier than the sword” isn’t about specific pens or swords or even about specific instances of their metaphorical counterparts, acts of writing and acts of aggression.

“The” does not seem like a difficult word, but it’s very hard to explain to someone who isn’t a native speaker. Why do we say, “I love the ballet,” but not “I love the cable TV”? Why do we say, “I have the flu,” but not “I have the headache”? Why do we say, “winter is the coldest season,” and not “winter is coldest season”? For speakers of Russian, Korean, or any language that doesn’t have a “the,” these are important questions.

The only satisfactory answers are found, not in an explanatory definition, but in lists of situations where “the” is used. Such a list is what you find, in fact, if you look up “the” in the dictionary, something native speakers almost never do. Why would they? It’s not “anthropomorphism” or “jejune” or one of those words people need dictionaries for. But dictionary-makers are tasked with defining all the words people use, not just the glamorous ones, and sometimes the simplest words turn out to be the hardest ones to define. The entry for “the” on Merriam-Webster.com lists 23 places where it can go, among them “before the plural form of a numeral that is a multiple of ten to denote a particular decade of a century or of a person's life <life in the twenties>” and “before the name of a commodity or any familiar appurtenance of daily life to indicate reference to the individual thing, part, or supply thought of as at hand <talked on the telephone>.” These uses are related to each other in a loose and complex way, but it’s impossible to pull out the single definitive meaning that underlies them all. You simply have to list them. And that list is the meaning.

The OED lists 50 entries for “the,” some of which are only historical relics. It was once correct to play “the chess,” to learn “the dressmaking” and “the mathematics,” and to read “the French,” all for “the posterity.” The “the” dropped out of those situations. The fact that it doesn’t go before those words anymore is also part of its meaning.

So the meaning of “the” is the combination of the situations where it is appropriate and the situations where it is not appropriate. This makes it quite different from straightforwardly definable words like “octahedron” (“a three-dimensional figure having eight plane faces”), but not much different from “different” or “see” or “now” or any of the everyday words we use all the time. We like to think of words as little containers of meaning that we pack and unpack as we communicate, but they are not containers so much as pointers. They point us toward a body of experience and knowledge, to conversations we have had and things we have read, to places in sentences where we have and haven’t seen them. Words get their meanings from what we do with them. Especially the word we use the most.

25 Words You Didn't Know Were in the Dictionary

iStock
iStock

With perhaps three-quarters of a million words in the English language, it's fairly reasonable to suggest that you probably won't get around to learning them all, and that there'll be plenty of words hiding away in the dictionary that you’ll never need (or want) to know.

In some cases, that's a real shame: Look closely enough and the dictionary contains dozens of eminently useful words, like euneirophrenia (the pleasant feeling of contentment that comes from waking up after a nice dream), zwodder (a cloudy, befuddled mental state caused by not getting enough sleep), and snollygoster (a disreputable politician). But in other cases—as with the 25 weird and obscure words listed here—not knowing or using them might be totally understandable.

1. ARCHIMIME

Two male friends laughing and imitating each other
iStock

As well as being one of the strangest words in the dictionary, archimime or archmime is also perhaps one of the strangest occupations in history: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an archimime was "a chief buffoon or jester" whose job involved attending funerals and impersonating the deceased person. (No, really.)

2. AWESOMESAUCE

A glass bottle of cranberry sauce being transferred from bottle to bowl
iStock

Yes, this slang word for anything particularly awesome was added to the dictionary (or at least the online arm of Oxford Dictionaries) in 2015, along with the likes of fur baby, wine o’clock, manspreading, and mkay.

3. BATRACHOMYOMACHY

A frustrated-looking businesswoman at a meeting, leaning back in chair with her hand on her head
iStock

If you know your classics, you might know this one already: A batrachomyomachy is a petty quarrel or pointless argument. That might sound straightforward enough, but when you find out that it literally means "a battle between frogs and mice," things take a turn for the unusual. The word batrachomyomachy actually derives from an ancient Greek parody of Homer's Iliad in which a frog accidentally drowned a mouse that was sitting on its back, sparking a brutal war between the two species.

4. BUTTOCKER

A smiling man wearing a head lamp working at a mine
iStock

A buttock (in this context at least) is the next portion of a coalface to be broken up and mined out. A buttocker, according to an early 20th century Glossary of the Mining Industry, is someone who does precisely that.

5. CALLIPYGIAN

A young woman doing yoga with one leg raised in the air
iStock

Derived from the Greek word callos, meaning "beauty" (as in calligraphy or calisthenics), someone described as callipygian has beautifully shaped buttocks. Originally an architectural term from the early 1800s used to describe the figures of classical sculptures and artworks, the word has been in wider use since the late 1900s.

6. CEPHALOMANCY

Close up of a donkey on a grassy mountain
iStock

Sages and forecasters have used ever more bizarre methods to tell the future over the centuries, from observing the shapes of the clouds (aeromancy) to the shapes and patterns of the ashes from a fire (tephromancy). Among the strangest of all these fortune-telling practices was cephalomancy—a method of foretelling the future in which a donkey's head would be boiled or roasted on an open fire, and significance taken from the movements or crackling of its bones. One particular use of this kind of divination was in assessing a guilty party: A list of names would be read aloud while the head was cooked, and if the donkey's jaw moved or cracked when someone's name was spoken, they were said to be the guilty party.

7. EUOUAE

Antique sheet music set up on a church lectern
iStock

Euouae is actually a mnemonic abbreviation used to memorize the sequence of a particular cadence in a certain hymn (and so the jury is out as to whether it actually constitutes a word). Nevertheless, it's found its way onto the pages of some dictionaries and as such is said to be the longest word in the English language consisting entirely of vowels.

8. FEAGUE

A white horse in a barn
iStock

According to the English lexicographer Francis Grose's aptly-titled Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, feague is a verb meaning "to put ginger up a horse's fundament." If that sounds too ridiculous to be true, don't worry: You can always replace the raw ginger with a live eel. Both methods, Grose explained, were apparently once used "to make him lively and carry his tail well," thereby earning his owner a better price at market. Etymologically, the word is something of a mystery­, but one theory suggests that feague might once have meant merely "to agitate" or "to enliven," and the later more specific (and more unpleasant) meaning derived from there.

9. GANDER-PULLING

A group of white geese on a blue background
iStock

Take a live goose. Cover it in grease. Suspend it by its feet from a crossbar. Then ride a horse underneath it and, as you go by, try to pull the goose’s head off. That’s the definition of the sport (if it can be called a sport) of gander-pulling.

10. HIPPANTHROPY

A farmer smiling at his cow across a metal bar
iStock

Coined in the 1800s, hippanthropy is the mental delusion that you are turning into, or have turned into, a horse. Not quite the word you want? Try boanthropy, the delusion that you're an ox. Too specific? Try zoanthropy, the delusion that you are turning into an (unspecified) animal.

11. HOPLOCHRISM

A steel sword point over a background of burned paper
iStock

Derived from a Greek word, hoplon, for a weapon, hoplochrism is an old form of medicine in which the weapon or tool that caused a wound would be treated and anointed in the same way as the wound itself, in the belief that doing so would somehow speed up the healing process. You can decide for yourself whether it ever worked.

12. LANT

Two cold beers in glasses on a wooden bar
iStock

As a noun, lant or leint is stale or aged urine, which was once stored and preserved for its chemical and supposed medicinal properties. As a verb, to lant is to mix urine into beer to make it taste stronger. If ever there was a word you might never want to come across, surely it's this.

13. POGONOLOGY

A close-up of the lower half of a strawberry blond, bearded, freckled man's face
iStock

First used in English in the 18th century, a pogonology is a treatise on or written description of a beard.

14. PTOMATIS

Red wine pouring out of a bottle and into a glass
iStock

If ever you needed an incentive to drink, owning a ptomatis might be it. Derived via Latin from Ancient Greek, a ptomatis is a cup or similar drinking vessel that needs to be emptied before it can be put down, as it is shaped in such a way that it won't stand upright open-end up.

15. QUOMODOCUNQUIZE

uccessful businesswoman multitasking with six arms at once, holding various implements
iStock

Q-words are always a bit on the unusual side, but quomodocunquize is in a field of its own. Derived from a Latin word, quomodocunque, meaning "in whatever way possible," to quomodocunquize is to make money or earn a living by any possible means.

16. RUNNING-BUTTOCK

Two wrestlers in stance on stage
iStock

Thankfully not as unpleasant as it sounds: A running-buttock is the name of a wrestling move dating from the 17th century.

17. SHIVVINESS

A pile of wooden splinters and sawdust
iStock

A shive is a tiny splinter or fragment of something. Derived from that—in the sense that a loose thread or tag in a garment might be unpleasantly scratchy—shivviness is the uncomfortable feeling caused by wearing new underwear.

18. SMELLFUNGUS

A skeptical-looking man with a finger on his lower lip
iStock

In his A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), the author Laurence Sterne invented a character named Smelfungus (albeit with one L) who was habitually unimpressed with everything he cast his eyes on during his travels. Sterne based the character on fellow travel writer (and chronic nitpicker) Tobias Smollett, and in doing so gave the English language a brilliant word for a dour, pessimistic faultfinder.

19. SOOTERKIN

A blond woman sitting on a kitchen counter near the stove
iStock

As definitions go, that of sooterkin is probably among the strangest of all in the dictionary: It refers to a monstrous part-human creature said to be given birth to by Dutch women who sat on stove tops to keep warm.

20. SPANGHEW

A toy frog jumping through the air
iStock

According to a quotation in the English Dialect Dictionary, spanghewing was the name of "a cruel custom" that involved "blowing up a frog by inserting a straw under the skin at the anus." The inflated frog was then bowled across the surface of a pond, and whoever could toss or spanghew their frog the furthest won the game. Thankfully, nobody goes around spanghewing anymore and so the word—on the rare occasion it is used—is typically used to mean "to hurl violently into the air."

21. SYPHILOMANIA

A blood vial that has tested positive for syphilis
iStock

Should you ever need a word for it, the tendency of doctors "to overdiagnose syphilis, or to treat patients for syphilis unnecessarily," is syphilomania according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

22. TATTARRATTAT

The back of a long-haired young woman knocking on a door with a blue knocker
iStock

James Joyce invented this word for the sound of someone knocking on a door in his novel Ulysses (1922). As well as being just a particularly strange word, it also has the distinction of being the longest palindrome in the OED.

23. THUMB-BUMPER

A happy smiling man in a blue shirt giving a thumbs up
iStock

In addition to being a term from pinball, a thumb-bumper is 'one who closing his fist firmly but with the thumb sticking out fiercely drives it against the buttocks of another." Why you would have to do that, and why it happened frequently enough to warrant a definition in the English Dialect Dictionary, is a mystery. And probably best kept that way.

24. TYROTOXISM

Various types of cheese on a cutting board and a wooden table
iStock

Should you ever need a word specifically to describe being poisoned by cheese, here it is.

25. WHIPPERSNAP

A little girl with blond hair and large black funny glasses
iStock

To behave like a whippersnapper? That's to whippersnap.

Kalsarikänni, or Getting Drunk in Your Underwear, Is Finland's Version of Hygge

iStock/CatLane
iStock/CatLane

Hygge, the Danish term that loosely translates to "coziness," doesn't have an exact English equivalent, but that hasn't kept the concept from gaining an international following. It has even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. Hygge has opened the world up to a whole universe of comforting concepts—often, but not always Scandinavian or Nordic in origin—that encompass the full breadth of amazing, underrated life experiences. Enter kalsarikänni, a Finnish term that we just learned about from The Guardian.

Kalsarikänni is the Finnish concept of taking off your pants and getting sloshed on your couch. The term roughly translates to "pantsdrunk" and means drinking at home, alone, in your underwear. Whereas terms like hygge or the Swedish lagom (meaning "just the right amount") imply a certain wholesomeness, kalsarikänni (here's how to pronounce it) celebrates an activity that is indulgent, selfish, and so, so satisfying.

Though the term involves staying home, you don't necessarily need to be totally alone to enjoy kalsarikänni. It can also be accomplished with a good friend, roommate, or partner. And while you can do it in your underwear, pajamas are also acceptable. It just has to be comfortable.

Take it from Miska Rantanen, whose new book, Pantsdrunk: Kalsarikanni: The Finnish Path to Relaxation, is all about the subject. (Its UK title is the more descriptive Pantsdrunk: The Finnish Art of Drinking at Home. Alone. In Your Underwear.) Here are the steps he suggests in The Guardian:

"Pack the fridge full of budget-brand artisanal beer, stock up on dips, crisps and chocolate—and make sure you have the latest psychological drama ready to watch on Netflix. When you get home, immediately strip off your outer layers of clothing (the basic rule: take off anything that's even mildly uncomfortable or formal). Dressing for pantsdrunk generally means undressing. Gradually you'll reach the most pleasurable moment of your striptease: the slow peeling off of your sweaty socks from your feet, a sensation that deserves its own Scandi expression. Now saunter to the kitchen and grab one of the cold beers from the fridge. Sink down on the sofa in your underwear and let out a deep sigh of relief."

Doesn't that sound wonderful? We know what we'll be doing tonight, that's for sure.

And yes, there is an emoji for it.

[h/t The Guardian]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER