The noble “the” has been squeezed off titles and maps
Twice a year, at the approach of spring and again on the eve of autumn, I go through the catalogues that Canadian, American and British publishing houses send out to announce their forthcoming books. While doing so, I invariably stumble across a few impending works whose titles are so ridiculous as to suggest that the cataloguers are pulling the public’s leg. The most recent example is Time: 85 Years of Great Writing, an anthology selected “by Editors of Time Magazine.”
Now Time, the original “newsweekly,” began as a publication whose far-right looniness was inseparable from the doctrines of Henry Luce, one of the magazine’s two founders. Yet such views were tempered by intellectual aspirations not otherwise seen in truly mass-circulation American periodicals. From the 1920s through the 1950s, for example, the long cover stories were usually about some political or intellectual figure who had suddenly entered the national or global consciousness. These subjects were more likely to be statesmen, business leaders, intellectuals and artists than entertainers. For example, Time probably did more than other any other publication to explain Albert Einstein to ordinary readers.
These days Time, fighting obsolescence, emphasizes such matters as diets, show-biz celebrities and supposed medical breakthroughs. But now it is written in the paratactic prose of standard American-style journalism, and this at least represents a tremendous improvement. For in its heyday, the old Time, despite its comparatively serious components, was couched in language that was, in a word, bizarre. Or, in another word, wretched. Woolcott Gibbs, once the drama critic of the New Yorker, wrote a famous satire of Time that perfectly parodied what was known as Timestyle. He described Time’s prose this way: “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.”
Time’s most enduring sin against the English language, one that has now become ubiquitous across the whole spectrum of writing, is to use people’s job designations as though they were honorifics or military ranks. This amounted to demonizing the indefinite articles (a, an) and especially the definite article (the). Before Time, a person would be described as, for instance, “Alice Jones, a teacher . . .” or, if she was a prominent one, “Alice Jones, the teacher” or “the teacher Alice Jones.” Time taught the world to say “Teacher Alice Jones” (upper-case T) or even, in the second reference, “Teacher Jones said today that . . .”—as though teacher were an official title such as Prime Minister or Colonel. This transition should make us wary of Time’s notion of what constitutes “great writing.”
In an earlier era, the arts world was especially eager to reinforce the dignity of various nouns by putting the in front of them. There were schools of the dance and translations from the French; visual artists drew from the nude. Such usages sound archaic today: what Londoners used to call Wardour Street English, back when that street, in later times the centre of the British film industry, was synonymous with antique shops. Perhaps nothing illustrates the point more clearly than what befell Jesus so long after His death. The top-selling American novel of the nineteenth century was Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The phrase “the Christ” reminds us that the second word originally meant something along the lines of “the person who has been anointed.” By the twentieth century, the article had been dropped, making “Christ” sound like the family name of Sometime Carpenter Jesus, offspring of Joe and Mary Christ, brother of Jim Christ who keeps cropping up in the New Testament. But a couple of generations after Jesus lost His definite article, His spokesmen on Earth were still “the Reverend” So-and-so or even “the Reverend Doctor” until the editors of Time and their kind followed Samson’s example and warning: metaphor ends in 25 metres—smote them with the jawbone of an ass.
Down through the years, the has been squeezed off maps as well, as a sacrifice to nationalism and identity politics. The disappearance of these three little letters has often signalled and symbolized such paradigm shifts, often in tandem with such events as anglophones finally forsaking “French Canadian” for Québécois, a telling indication of how the socio-political landscape was being redrawn. As the Toronto columnist Andrew Coyne (the because he is in fact prominent) has pointed out, the difference between saying “Jews” and “the Jews” is all the difference in the world. In this example, the is taken as being derogatory, an interpretation now common in the names of races, religions and ethnicities as well as those of places.
The 33,000 people who live in what many benighted southern Canadians still call “the Yukon” prefer simply “Yukon,” as though resentful that anyone should infer that the somehow sets them apart from the rest of Canada by focusing condescending attention on territorial status. When the overseas colonies of the European powers began gaining independence following the Second World War, many actually changed their names by statute. Similarly, when Ukraine became independent of the former Soviet Union, it ceased being “the Ukraine.” India went so far as to rename its major cities, making Bombay into Mumbai and so on, not because the old names originated from a European language but because they were the ones Europeans had used. Once the Indian political divisions during the Raj became states in the Republic of India, some of them changed as well, as when “the Punjab” became “Punjab.”
One field in which the noble the has best survived the ravages of time (and of Time) is the names of rivers and mountain ranges. The names of regions are another example: the Prairies, the North, and so on, as these entities too are geographical distinctions more than political ones. Then there are areas of the world map in which the definite article persists because it is part of some older consensus whose details have grown fuzzy in our minds. Perhaps the only reason there hasn’t been a movement to say “Levant” instead of “the Levant” for the eastern extremity of the Mediterranean is that this particular cartographic whimsy has pretty much lost its currency. In the minds of those who have reason to think of it at all, the Levant is now just a part of the western Middle East.
Then there are the Americans. Right from the beginning of their revolutionary unpleasantness with Britain, they were calling their ad hoc protest convention a congress. The First Continental Congress (1774) acquired its title after the fact, to distinguish it from a second such meeting, the one that drew up the cheeky Declaration of Independence. The document infamously begins: “In Congress, July 4, 1776, The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” That’s “in congress” not in the sense of a permanent institution but rather in the sense of a coming-together for discussion of topical concerns. Modern Americans refer to events taking place “in Congress” but at other times speak of “the Congress.” But why do they, alone in the English-speaking world, always talk of being “in the hospital” (as though there were only one) rather than “in hospital” like everyone else?
The most interesting thing—possibly the only one—about the American television show The O.C. was its use of the T word. I am reliably informed that until the series began, only a small subset of snappy young people spoke of Orange County, the no man’s land between Los Angeles and San Diego counties, as “O.C.” The nickname wasn’t known to the generality of Californians, though they had their own similar peculiarities. Whereas folks in other parts of the U.S. refer to a freeway as, for example, “Interstate 70” or “I-70,” the one that runs down the centre of California is “the I-5.” But “the O.C.” was not indigenous. The show’s creators simply made it up.