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.

The 100 Most Popular Baby Names of the Decade

Silk-stocking/iStock via Getty Images
Silk-stocking/iStock via Getty Images

Every decade has its own baby name trends. Thanks to recent data from the Social Security Administration, we now know the most popular baby names of the 2010s (or at least from 2010 to 2018, the latest year analyzed).

The 2010s saw a rise in the number of babies with gender-neutral names (like Cameron, Jordan, and Avery). That trend could be due in part to rising awareness of gender fluidity, although some parents state other reasons for choosing unisex names.

“Whether we like it or not, names that skew a little masculine, or less feminine, are perceived as stronger, and I wanted that for my girls,” San Francisco resident Kirsten Hammann told the Associated Press.

Parents are also newly into vowels, possibly because names with roughly one vowel per consonant (like Emma, Noah, and Elijah) are more “liquid sounding,” baby-naming expert Laura Wattenberg told The Atlantic. Baby names are also trending shorter than they were in the 1990s and 2000s.

One trend that’s been consistent throughout the 21st century as a whole: Parents are resistant to following conventional naming trends. Modern parents are far more likely to opt for unique baby names than for traditionally popular names. In the 1950s, more than 30 percent of boys born in the United States received a top 10 name, San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge and colleagues wrote in 2010. In 2007, less than 10 percent of boys had a top 10 name. Girls are even less likely to have a common name—25 percent of girls born in the 1950s had a top 10 name, while less than 8 percent of girls born in 2007 had a highly popular name.

That trend seems to have been even more pronounced this decade. According to the Social Security Administration’s data, more than 163,000 baby boys born between 2010 and 2018 were given the name Noah (the most popular male name of the decade). In the 2000s, about 274,000 boys were named Jacob, and more than 462,000 boys born in the 1990s were named Michael.

“The most compelling explanation left is this idea that parents are much more focused on their children standing out,” Dr. Twenge told Live Science in 2010. “There’s been this cultural shift toward focusing on the individual, toward standing out and being unique as opposed to fitting in with the group and following the rules.”

Below, you’ll find the list of the 100 most popular baby names of the decade. Want to get a head start on figuring out what names will be popular in the 2020s? Check out this list.

  1. Emma
  1. Sophia
  1. Olivia
  1. Noah
  1. Isabella
  1. Liam
  1. Jacob
  1. Mason
  1. William
  1. Ava
  1. Ethan
  1. Michael
  1. Alexander
  1. James
  1. Elijah
  1. Daniel
  1. Benjamin
  1. Aiden
  1. Jayden
  1. Mia
  1. Logan
  1. Matthew
  1. Abigail
  1. Emily
  1. David
  1. Joseph
  1. Lucas
  1. Jackson
  1. Anthony
  1. Joshua
  1. Samuel
  1. Andrew
  1. Gabriel
  1. Christopher
  1. John
  1. Madison
  1. Charlotte
  1. Dylan
  1. Carter
  1. Isaac
  1. Elizabeth
  1. Ryan
  1. Luke
  1. Oliver
  1. Nathan
  1. Henry
  1. Owen
  1. Amelia
  1. Caleb
  1. Wyatt
  1. Chloe
  1. Christian
  1. Ella
  1. Sebastian
  1. Evelyn
  1. Jack
  1. Avery
  1. Sofia
  1. Harper
  1. Jonathan
  1. Landon
  1. Julian
  1. Isaiah
  1. Hunter
  1. Levi
  1. Grace
  1. Addison
  1. Aaron
  1. Victoria
  1. Eli
  1. Charles
  1. Natalie
  1. Thomas
  1. Connor
  1. Lily
  1. Brayden
  1. Nicholas
  1. Jaxon
  1. Jeremiah
  1. Aubrey
  1. Cameron
  1. Evan
  1. Adrian
  1. Jordan
  1. Lillian
  1. Gavin
  1. Zoey
  1. Hannah
  1. Grayson
  1. Angel
  1. Robert
  1. Layla
  1. Tyler
  1. Josiah
  1. Brooklyn
  1. Austin
  1. Samantha
  1. Zoe
  1. Colton
  1. Brandon

What’s the Difference Between Crocheting and Knitting?

djedzura/iStock via Getty Images
djedzura/iStock via Getty Images

With blustery days officially upon us, the most pressing question about your sweaters, scarves, hats, and mittens is probably: “Are these keeping me warm?” If you’re a DIY enthusiast, or just a detail-oriented person in general, your next question might be: “Were these knitted or crocheted?”

Knitting and crocheting are both calming crafts that involve yarn, produce cozy garments and other items, and can even boost your mental well-being. Having said that, they do have a few specific differences.

To knit, you need needles. The size, material, and number of those needles depends on the project; though most traditional garments are made using two needles, it’s also possible to knit with just one needle, or as many as five. But regardless of the other variables, one or both ends of your knitting needles will always be pointed.

While crocheting calls for a similar long, thin tool that varies in size and material, it has a hooked end—and you only ever need one. According to The Spruce Crafts, even if you hear people refer to the tool as a crochet needle, they’re really talking about a crochet hook.

crotchet hook and garment
jessicacasetorres/iStock via Getty Images

Part of the reason you only use one hook brings us to the next difference between crocheting and knitting: When crocheting, there’s only one “active loop” on your hook at any given time, whereas knitting entails lining up loops down the length of your needles and passing them between needles. The blog Darn Good Yarn explains that since each loop is attached to a long row of stitches, accidentally “dropping” one off the end of your needle might unravel the entire row.

Of course, you have a better chance of avoiding that type of manual error if you’re using a knitting machine or loom, which both exist. Crocheting, on the other hand, has to be done by hand. Since machines can create garments with extremely small stitches, some knit clothes can be much more lightweight or close-fitting than anything you’d be able to crochet—and knitted clothes can also be mass-produced.

When it comes to what the items actually look like, crochet stitches characteristically look more like knots, while knit stitches seem flatter and less bulky. However, materials and techniques have come a long way over the years, and now there’s more crossover between what you’re able to knit and crochet. According to The Spruce Crafts, socks and T-shirts—traditionally both garments that would be knitted—can now technically be crocheted.

knitting needles and garment
Sedan504/iStock via Getty Images

And, believe it or not, knitting and crocheting can even be used to depict complicated mathematical concepts: see what a crocheted hyperbolic plane, Lorenz manifold, and more look like here.

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

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER