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.

50 Collective Nouns for Groups of Animals

WLDavies/iStock
WLDavies/iStock

You know which animals move in packs, schools, and herds, but what about a wake, a business, or a flamboyance?

1. A CACKLE OF HYENAS

A group of hyenas on a rock.
JRLPhotographer/iStock

While clan is the much more accepted term, there's something very appropriate about cackle. And though their laughs and giggles sound entertaining, they're really how spotted hyenas express anger, frustration, and warnings to stay away.

2. A SHREWDNESS OF APES

Group of chimps in a tree.
guenterguni/iStock

This term has around since the late 1400s—at the time, shrewdness referred to the mischievous nature of apes, though knowing now how intelligent they are, the term still works.

3. A RAFT OF OTTERS

Otters floating in the water in a large group.
Dougall_Photography/iStock

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, many aquatic animals, such as ducks or puffins, also form rafts.

4. A MURDER OF CROWS

Silhouette of crows at night.
Renphoto/iStock

In the 15th century, crows were considered to be omens of death and messengers from the devil or evil powers.

5. A SCURRY OF SQUIRRELS

Squirrels lined up on a log.
Jef Wodniack/iStock

Scurries are fairly unusual since squirrels are not pack animals by nature, so the more commonly used dray refers to a nest consisting of a mother squirrel and her young.

6. A WAKE OF VULTURES

Buzzards and vultures coming over to a carcass.
Steve Allen Photo/iStock

For vultures, a wake specifically refers to a group feeding on a carcass. The less morbid terms kettle and committee are reserved for groups that are flying and resting in trees, respectively.

7. A BATTERY OF BARRACUDAS

A battery of barracuda swimming.
armiblue/iStock

Just one barracuda is intimidating, but a battery of them? Time to retreat!

8. A MUSTER OF STORKS

A muster of storks in a flower field.
Javier Conejero/iStock

A muster can also be used for groups of peacocks/peafowl (though an ostentation of peacocks is much more illustrative).

9. A WALK OF SNAILS

Group of snails.
Grotmarsel/iStock

Considering walk is one of the things a snail cannot do, this seems like an unusual choice. Perhaps the lesser-known (but still accepted) escargatoire would be more accurate.

10. A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS

A group of owls on a branch.
tariq sulemani/iStock

It's unclear when this phrase was invented, with examples dating to the late 19th century. But its origin is likely an allusion to Chaucer's poem "The Parliament of Fowls," alongside the use of parliament as a collective noun for rooks.

11. AN AMBUSH OF TIGERS

Three Bengal tigers walking along a path.
guenterguni/iStock

Since tigers tend to be solitary creatures, a grouping of them would certainly feel like an ambush.

12. A COTERIE OF PRAIRIE DOGS

Prairie dogs standing on a mound.
HenkBentlage/iStock

While full towns of prairie dogs are called colonies, the close-knit, individual family units are called coteries.

13. A MUTATION OF THRUSH

Thrush birds in a nest.
Stephen Barnes/iStock

An ancient and medieval belief that thrushes shed and regrew their legs each decade led to the collective term of a mutation of thrush.

14. A MEMORY OF ELEPHANTS

A herd of elephants with a couple of babies in front.
johan63/iStock

Sure, a herd of elephants is the more common collective, but a memory is also a recognized term. We're not sure why a pack of pachyderms didn't catch on though …

15. A SKULK OF FOXES

Four little red foxes in a grassy field.
taviphoto/iStock

This term likely came about because mother foxes raise their young while burrowed underground.

16. A SCOLD OF JAYS

Jays sitting on a ledge.
SHSPhotography/iStock

Jays also hang in bands and parties.

17. A COVEY OF QUAIL

Quail in the grass.
SteveByland/iStock

While they can also group as a flock or a bevy, a covey of quail sounds much more poetic.

18. A HOVER OF TROUT

Trout in the water.
emmgunn/iStock

Since trout tend to swim in groups near the bottom of a lake or river, they likely look like they're hovering over the bed of the waterway. Alternately, it may come from an old term for an overhanging rock where fish—like trout—can hide.

19. A BALE OF TURTLES

Group of turtles in the water.
dinozaver/iStock

Supposedly, a group of turtles who are cozy in their shells would look like a field of round or squarish hay bales.

20. A RHUMBA OF RATTLESNAKES

Couple of rattlesnakes.
User10095428_393/iStock

Because, perhaps under circumstances that didn't involve a large number of snakes, that many rattles in one place would make you want to dance.

21. A CHARM OF HUMMINGBIRDS

Hummingbirds flitting around a feeder.
Missing35mm/iStock

If just one hummingbird is charming, can you imagine how charming a whole group of them would be?

22. A BUSINESS OF FERRETS

A basket of ferrets.
JuergenBosse/iStock

The Book of Saint Albans gave ferrets the collective term busyness ("besynes"), which today has become "business."

23. A STUBBORNNESS OF RHINOCEROSES

Rhinoceroses drinking water.
CornelisNienaber_/iStock

They can collectively be called a crash of rhinos as well.

24. A PRICKLE OF PORCUPINES

Porcupines eating some food.
photomaru/iStock

Could this term be any more apt?

25. AN IMPLAUSIBILITY OF GNUS

Gnus and wildebeests jumping into the water.
ANDREYGUDKOV/iStock

Who knew?

26. AN UNKINDNESS OF RAVENS

Silhouette of ravens in a tree.
MRaust/iStock

Ravens aren't exactly friendly fowl. They will often gang up on their prey or animals that enter their space. And because of the impression that they are an ominous presence, an unkindness of ravens can also be called a conspiracy.

27. A HAREM OF SEALS

A large group of seals.
evenfh/iStock

Specifically, when you have a group of females with a dominant male, it's a harem. If it's just some breeding seals hanging out, it's a rookery.

28. A MOB OF KANGAROOS

Kangaroos in a field.
leelakajonkij/iStock

And just like in human mobs, there's usually a leader (a "boomer," or adult male) who is only in power for a short while before being challenged and defeated by a rival boomer.

29. A GAM OF WHALES

Group of whales swimming in the ocean.
solarseven/iStock

Gam is a possible derivative of the word "gammon," meaning talk intended to deceive. Considering scientists have only just recently begun thinking they could decipher whale calls, we'd say the gam's gammon is pretty effective.

30. A POD OF PELICANS

Pelicans swimming on the water.
hartmanc10/iStock

They can also be called a squadron.

31. A GENERATION OF VIPERS

Two vipers hiding in the leaves.
Mark Kostich/iStock

A group of snakes is generally a pit, nest, or den, but they're generally thought of as solitary creatures, so collective nouns for specific types of snakes are more fanciful. A "generation of vipers" likely originates from the King James translation of the Bible, in which Matthew 23:33 reads "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?"

32. A DESCENT OF WOODPECKERS

Three woodpeckers in a tree.
RT-Images/iStock

Woodpeckers are far more known for their wood-pecking style of foraging for food, but another method some have is to quickly dive-bomb anthills and termite mounds.

33. A RUN OF SALMON

Salmon swimming upstream.
sekarb/iStock

A salmon run isn't just the mass migration of salmon up the river—a run of salmon is also the name of a grouping of the fish.

34. A KALEIDOSCOPE OF BUTTERFLIES

One blue butterfly with a lot of orange butterflies.
borchee/iStock

Groups of butterflies can also be called flutters.

35. A WISDOM OF WOMBATS

Couple of wombats in a field.
yellowsarah/iStock

Wombats have large brains and are incredibly playful, which is often viewed as a sign of intelligence.

36. A ROUT OF WOLVES

Large pack of wolves.
Cloudtail_the_Snow_Leopard/iStock

While pack is definitely the better-known term today, a very old term for wolves is rout, a word that ultimately came from the Middle French for company.

37. A SHIVER OF SHARKS

Group of hammerhead sharks in the ocean.
Janos/iStock

The term shiver applies a bit more to nervous humans when they see a large group of sharks, which is perhaps why the term has caught on in recent years.

38. A SCOURGE OF MOSQUITOES

Mosquitos flying against a yellow light.
Nataba/iStock

They're more commonly called a swarm, but a scourge sounds just as accurate.

39. A SLEUTH OF BEARS

Four bears climbing a tree.
Chilkoot/iStock

This isn't a reference to any detective work bears may or may not do—it's derived from the Old English word for sloth, meaning slow (and sloth itself is sometimes used as a collective noun as well). 

40. A GAZE OF RACCOONS

Three raccoons in a tree hole.
stanley45/iStock

The males are called boars and the females sows.

41. A SIEGE OF HERONS

Herons standing in a field.
joesayhello/iStock

When herons pick a new lake or river to rest at, the fish there would certainly feel under siege.

42. A FLAMBOYANCE OF FLAMINGOS

Flamingos flying and standing in the water.
mantaphoto/iStock

Kudos to the creator of this perfect term.

43. A DESTRUCTION OF CATS

Black and white cats hanging out along a street.
lilagri/iStock

A destruction refers specifically to a group of wild or feral cats. A group of domesticated cats is a clowder.

44. A FEVER OF STINGRAYS

Stingrays swimming under the water.
EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER/iStock

At the very least, swimming with a fever of stingrays would surely cause your blood pressure to rise.

45. A SKEIN OF GEESE

Geese looking at the camera.
Melbye/iStock

A skein is used specifically when geese (or other wild birds) are flying, while the alliterative gaggle is the term for grounded or domestic geese.

46. A BUNCH OF WORMS

Pile of worms in the dirt.
Ben185/iStock

Not terribly creative, but when in doubt, just say "a bunch" of whatever.

47. AN EXALTATION OF LARKS

Larks flying across a field.
Supercaliphotolistic/iStock

An exaltation of larks also dates back to the 15th century Book of Saint Albans (which, because of its heraldry section, also happened to be the first book in England to be printed in color).

48. A FAMILY OF SARDINES

Sardines swimming in a large group.
Donyanedomam/iStock

There are more than a dozen fish who can be labeled "sardine" in the supermarket. So in this case, family means a large grouping, rather than parents and children.

49. A BARREL OF MONKEYS

A group of monkeys gathering around a banana.
Gilitukha/iStock

Not just a game—it's a real term. Monkeys can also congregate as a carload, troop, or tribe.

50. A DAZZLE OF ZEBRAS

Zebras grazing in a field.
Photoservice/iStock

They're more commonly called a herd, but a zeal or dazzle of zebras has such a nice ring to it.

How Coronavirus and 31 Other Infectious Diseases and Viruses Got Their Names

Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Dr_Microbe/iStock via Getty Images

As you may already know, the corona in coronavirus has no relation to a certain refreshing beer often served with a slice of lime. Corōna means “crown” in Latin—and Spanish and Italian, too—and virologists chose it in 1968 to describe the group of viruses characterized by crown-like spikes that protrude from their surfaces.

So how do other viruses and diseases get their names? Based on the infographic below, created by Adam Aleksic for his website, The Etymology Nerd, there isn’t just one way. Some, like the coronavirus, are named for how they look under a microscope. The rota in rotavirus, for example, which means “wheel” in Latin, reflects the virus’s wheel-like appearance when viewed beneath an electron microscope.

Others are named after the locations where they were discovered or studied. In 1947, scientists named a newly identified mosquito-borne virus after Uganda’s Zika Forest. In 1977, Yale researchers investigating a string of pediatric arthritis cases in the town of Lyme, Connecticut, started referring to the illness as “Lyme arthritis.” Later, the name was modified to “Lyme disease” when scientists realized patients were exhibiting other symptoms, too.

Still others are characterized by the symptoms they cause. People with tetanus—from the Greek tetanos, for “tension”—usually experience muscle stiffness, and the skin of yellow fever sufferers often takes on a yellow tint due to jaundice.

Find out the origins of malaria, measles, and more below. And follow The Etymology Nerd on Instagram for more fascinating etymological explanations.

etymology nerd infectious disease names infographic
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of Latin in this infographic.

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