Playing the ‘The’ Card

In 2011, I wrote a Lingua Franca article called “Article Article,” about how the word the had mysteriously disappeared from such names and expressions as the prom, the CIA, the Potus, the Yukon, (Yale’s) the Old Campus, and (Amazon’s) the Kindle. I also mentioned a counter-trend,

that is, adding an unexpected definite article. This is often done for ironic effect, as in nicknames like The Donald or The Dude (in The Big Lebowski), the TV show The O.C., and Stephen Colbert’s frequent references to “The USA Today.” Absent irony, this the is dead-solid pretentious. Examples include the whiskey that insists on being called The Glenlivet [and] the tennis tournament that pretty much everybody in the world knows as Wimbledon but is officially The Championships.

Bringing the issue once again to mind is this week’s news that Lincoln University, in my home state of Pennsylvania, has officially changed its name to “The Lincoln University” (including capitalized T).  The historically black university’s main reason, reported, was to distinguish itself “from the other Lincoln universities and schools throughout the United States. There’s a Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., another in Oakland, Calif., a Lincoln College in Illinois and a Lincoln College of Technology with multiple locations.” A university spokesman was quoted as saying,  “We’ve always said we’re the Lincoln University because we were the first.”

I take his point, but the definite article can definitely be kind of awkward, as in a recent press release, whose dateline is explained by the fact that The Lincoln University is located in the town of Lincoln University. (I am not making that up.)

LINCOLN UNIVERSITY, PA – The Lincoln University is encouraging its alumni, students, administration, faculty, staff and supporters to vote for the reigning queen of The Lincoln University to be featured in the campus queens edition of Ebony magazine.

Another press release raises the specter of the dreaded double definite article. The heading of the release is “Ramon Flanigan Introduced As New Head Football Coach of The Lincoln University Lions,” but I think it should be “… Coach of the The Lincoln University Lions.”

My colleague Geoffrey Pullum explains:

There is a real embarrassment with proper names that contain their own definite article frozen inside them, like “The Hague,” when you put them in one of the rare contexts that demand a definite article before a proper name:

Is that the Groningen in Holland, or the other one?   [fine]
*Is that the The Hague in Holland, or the other one?  [surely not]
*Is that the Hague in Holland, or the other one?  [just as bad]

(That said, doubled thes can be kind of fun, as in the band known as The The, another called The The Band Band [a tribute group that sings "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"], and the baseball team The Los Angeles Angels, which, translated, becomes The The Angels Angels.)

Lincoln’s name adjustment inevitably calls to mind THE Ohio State University, a formulation familiar to anyone who has ever heard a former Buckeye introduce himself during one of those annoying meet-the-players montages that mar the opening minutes of pro football telecasts. Other institutions that insist on (or at least strongly encourage) a superfluous initial definite article are The Pennsylvania State University, The George Washington University, and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Another Lingua Franca stablemate, William Germano, who works there, notes that the name is sometimes rendered “‘The Cooper Union’ (still formal, but short), then most often ‘Cooper Union’ and at least internally, and to the occasional frustration of my colleagues in external affairs, just ‘Cooper.’”

I was about to add Johns Hopkins to that list, until I found this press release on the Hopkins Web site:

The Johns Hopkins University announced today that it is bowing to the inevitable and officially changing its name to “John Hopkins.”

“We give up,” university President Ronald J. Daniel said. “We’re fighting a losing battle here. And we strongly suspect the extra ‘s’ was a typo in the first place.”

Then I noticed the release was dated April 1.

In an amusing discussion of the The Ohio State issue on a Web site called The Straight Dope, someone remarks: “Of course, my university (UVA) refers to itself as ‘The University.’ Us arrogant? Nah … ” Another commenter chimes in: “Don’t let anyone there catch you referring to ‘The Grounds’ as ‘campus.’”

As far as the pretentiousness goes, it would seem, the University of Virginia takes the cake.


Return to Top