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.

Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

iStock.com/netopaek
iStock.com/netopaek

Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

15 Long-Lost Words To Revive This Christmas

iStock.com/duncan1890
iStock.com/duncan1890

Nog. Tidings. Wassail. Every time Christmas rolls around it brings with it its own vocabulary of words you barely hear the rest of the year. But while words derived from ancient English ales (like the nog in eggnog) and Middle English greetings (wassail is thought to derive from a Germanic phrase meaning “good health!”) are one thing, some choice festive words haven’t stood the test of time, and are basically unknown outside of the dustiest corners of the dictionary.

Here are 15 long-lost and long-forgotten words to get you through the holiday season.

1. Ninguid

Derived from Latin, a landscape that is ninguid is snow-covered. And if that’s what your walk to work looks like over the festive period, you might also need to know that to meggle is to trudge laboriously through snow. (A peck-of-apples, meanwhile, is a fall on ice.)

2. Crump

That crunching sound you make walking on partially frozen snow is called crumping.

3. Hiemate

Hibernate is sleeping throughout the entire winter; hiemate is to spend winter somewhere.

4. Yuleshard

As another word for the festive period, Yule comes via Old English from jol, an ancient Scandinavian word for a series of end-of-year festivities. A yuleshard—also called a yule-jade (jade being an insult once upon a time)—is someone who leaves a lot of work still to be done on Christmas Eve night.

5. Yule-Hole

And the yule-hole is the (usually makeshift) hole you need to move your belt to after you’ve eaten a massive meal.

6. Belly-Cheer

Dating from the 1500s, belly-cheer or belly-timber is a brilliantly evocative word for fine food or gluttonous eating.

7. Doniferous

If you’re doniferous then you’re carrying a present. The act of offering a present is called oblation, which originally was (and, in some contexts, still is) a religious term referring specifically to the presentation of money or donation of goods to the church. But since the 15th century it’s been used more loosely to refer to the action of offering or presenting any gift or donation, or, in particular, a gratuity.

8. Pourboire

Speaking of gratuities, a tip or donation of cash intended to be spent on drink is a pourboire—French, literally, for “for drink.” Money given in lieu of a gift, meanwhile, has been known as present-silver since the 1500s.

9. Toe-Cover

A cheap and totally useless present? In 1940s slang, that was a toe-cover.

10. Xenium

A gift given to a houseguest, or a gift given by a guest to their host, is called a xenium.

11. Scurryfunge

Probably distantly related to words like scour or scourge, scurryfunge first appeared in the late 18th century, with meanings of “to lash” or, depending on region, “to scour.” By the mid-1900s, however, things had changed: perhaps in allusion to scrubbing or working hard enough to abrade a surface, scurryfunge came to mean “to hastily tidy a house” before unexpected company arrive.

12. Quaaltagh

Quaaltagh was actually borrowed into English in the 1800s from Manx, the Celtic-origin language spoken on the Isle of Man—a tiny island located halfway between Britain and Ireland in the Irish Sea. It was on the Isle of Man that festive tradition dictates that the identity of the first person you see (or the first to enter your house) on Christmas or New Year morning will have some bearing on the events of the year to come. And in Manx culture, the person you meet on that early-morning encounter is called the quaaltagh.

13. Lucky-Bird

We’re more likely to call them a first-footer these days, but according to old Yorkshire folklore the first person across the threshold of your home on New Year’s morning is the lucky-bird. And just like the quaaltagh, tradition dictates that the identity of the lucky-bird has an important bearing on the success of the year to come: Men are the most fortuitous lucky-birds; depending on region, either dark-haired or light-haired men might be favored (but dark-haired is more common). Other regional variations claimed the man had to be a bachelor, had to bring a gift of coal (though by the 1880s whisky was increasingly popular), and/or had to have a high arch on the foot. People with a suitable combination for their region could “become almost professional,” according to the Leeds Mercury Weekly Supplement.

14. Apolausticism

Derived from the Greek word for “to enjoy,” apolausticism is a long-lost 19th-century word for a total devotion to enjoying yourself.

15. Crapulence

Once all the festive dust and New Year confetti has settled, here’s a word for the morning after the night before: crapulence, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, is an 18th-century word for “sickness or indisposition resulting from excess in drinking or eating.”

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