The little word at the beginning

A few weeks ago I ran across, a website that lists the 86,800 most frequently used words in English, in order of commonality. And what word do you suppose pops up in spot No. 1? It's "the," the modest, unassuming, but definite article, which begins so many of our utterances.

WordCount's presentation - which the site's proprietors describe as an "artistic experiment" - has an engaging minimalist aesthetic. Enter a word to see where it ranks; enter a rank to see what word holds it.

The site is based on the British National Corpus, which WordCount describes as "a 100 million-word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide

range of sources, designed to represent an accurate cross-section of current English usage." "The" stands with its immediate neighbors at the head of the queue, "of," "and," "to," "a," and "in," like the verbal equivalent of the spare change

emptied onto the bureau at bedtime. There's not much to any of them, but how would you put a sentence together without them?

Funny I should ask - even rhetorically - because in fact, "the" seems to be disappearing (inappropriately, to my mind) from a number of places, such as references to institutional names. Take universities, for example. No "the" needed at Harvard, Yale, or Brown - all schools named for a person. Princeton University and Michigan State University - both of whose names derive from a place - get along fine without an article. But universities "of" somewhere need the "the": the University of Chicago, the University of California.

The institution in Baltimore named for Mr. Hopkins styles itself "the Johns Hopkins University." Apparently, if you both give the money and name the school after yourself, you get a "the." Yet even on its own homepage, Johns Hopkins sometimes drops its "the."

"The" frequently disappears prematurely from publication titles. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, has no capitalized "the" on its "flag" unlike, say, The Wall Street Journal. But that doesn't mean that the Times doesn't get a "the" at all. "I read in Los Angeles Times today that..." just isn't on, folks.

The other side of the inappropriately disappearing "the" is the upwardly mobile capitalized "the." This shows up in the names of businesses where imagination seems in short supply, e.g., a bookstore on Main Street that calls itself The Bookstore on Main Street, and insists on that capital "T." Or some nouveau hotelier opens something called, obviously but unmemorably, The Inn on the Square. Would-be return visitors may have trouble finding their way back. As this trend continues, I'm ready to hear of some tourist in Manhattan enlisting his bewildered taxi driver's help to locate a hostelry calling itself The Hotel.

There's another disappearing "the" to note: the article in front of country names. Congo, Ivory Coast, Sudan, and Ukraine have all lost their "the" over the past few decades, Ukraine most recently, with the breakup of the Soviet Union. The pattern seems to be that a place name evolves from being a descriptor - a common noun, in effect - into a proper noun. Thus the ivory coast became the Ivory Coast and eventually simply Ivory Coast.

With independence from the Soviets, "the Ukraine" ("the borderland," literally) has become "Ukraine." As I write, the world is watching to see whether election results in Ukraine widely regarded as fraudulent are overturned. The Ukrainians have much at stake as they give up the "definite article" for the "real thing" of independence.

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