I’ve just run across an interesting series of threads at LINGUIST List on the topic of place names with and without “the.” It seems to have started with 3-892 (12 Nov 1992); I’ll give the threads in sequence, with a striking quote from each. From the first:

The discussion of the English place name meaning ‘hill hill hill’ reminded me of some name trivia from the Los Angeles area. One concerns ‘The La Brea Tar Pits’. I’m told ‘La Brea’ means ‘the tar’ in Spanish; if so, this name is actually ‘the the tar tar pits’. And when the Angels baseball team was ‘The Los Angeles Angels,’ it was literally called ‘the the angels angels.’

Then 3.904 (17 Nov 1992):

In regard to ‘The La Brea Tar Pits’ meaning ‘the the tar tar pits’, this reminds me of some Colorado forms I’ve seen: Table Mesa, i.e. ‘table table’; Casa del El Dorado (about the best one can do with this is “sic”); and The El Rancho Ranch, i.e., ‘the the ranch ranch’, the last with the same embedding observed in The La Brea Tar Pits.

From 3.908 (18 Nov 1992):

There must be many examples of the local word for river being misunderstood as the name of a particular river by visiting geographers. There are numerous River Avons in England. One other case is the Chao Phraya River which runs through Bangkok; on some old maps this appears as the Menam, mae nam being the Thai for river.

From 3.914 (20 Nov 1992):

It is certainly true that Southern Californians use the definite article when referring to freeways (“the 405”). This doesn’t seem to be the case in Northern California, however – at least with my relatives in the San Jose area. They think it is strange to use the definite article, as I think it is strange not to. My husband, a recent “immigrant” from N. to S. California actually seems to use “the” for S. Cal. freeways but not for the ones up north.

From 3.918 (21 Nov 1992):

In response to Michael Erickson’s posting commenting on the fact that Bay Area folk refer to San Francisco as “The City”: before moving to “The City” (San Francisco), I went to school in Rochester, NY, where many of the students were from New York City, “The City”. Needless to say it got me for awhile hearing SF referred to as “The City” when to me that meant NYC. Well, I got over it.

(There’s also an interesting discussion, too long to quote here, about what happened when the twin cities of Fort William and Port Arthur Ontario, known collectively as “The Lakehead,” were almalgamated and a new name had to be chosen: “Lakehead” or “The Lakehead”?)
And the point where I came in, 3.932 (25 Nov 1992):

I’m afraid that the story about Istambul having been derived from ‘is tim boli’ is a hoax, although I have seen the story many places. The most obvious problem with it is explanation of the ‘a’ in Istambul (where the Greek phrase has an ‘i’). It doesn’t help to invoke Greek dialects (like Dorian) that had an a in the article, since they were not spoken in the relvant areas and certainly not at the relevant time. I don’t have the details here (but can try to retrace them if somebody is interested), but I saw another etymology which claims to get the Turkish-internal facts right as well, and which derived Istambul from Konstandinupoli > Stanpuli > Stambuli > I + stambul (prothetic) which seems to make more sense. (Konstandinu[p]oli is the Modern Greek pronunciation of Constantinople.)
Of course, Istambul or Constantinople is still called ‘i Poli’, the city, by Greeks today. I also like the minimal pair politiko/s ‘civil, political’ with stress on the ultimate, vs. poli/tikos ‘of the City, like in Constantinople’ (often found on Greek tavern menus; [ante]penultimate stress).

Anybody have any thoughts on this last issue (or, of course, anything else)?


  1. Re road numbers, the standard thing in Northern CA, where I grew up, is to refer to Interstates with I-, so you get I-5, I-80, etc. Do people do this in other places? I never hear it much (ever?) in the NYC/NJ area — people don’t distinguish in speech between interstates and state highways, just use the number to identify the road.

  2. Yeah, re the lowly road numbers (the least interesting part of this topic but the only part I have anything to contribute to), up here in Canada we usually say “The number 5; the number 1” for major highways, “The 6a, the 2a” for highways with letters after the number and “Number 98; number 86” for minor highways. Our major highways also have names, so we would also say “The Coquihalla; The Crowsnest; The Yellowhead.”

  3. The issue certainy isn’t confined to geography. on the “hill hill hill” front, one of my favorite redundancies has always been TCBY Yogurt: The Country’s Best Yogurt Yogurt (which I almost referred to as “the TCBY Yogurt chain”). It seems to me that “The” in names most often functions simply as an article ought: in our attempt to make proper nouns out of non-unique words and phrases, the definite article serves to distinguish one specail instance from the generic mass of similar places. New York–or San Francisco–becomes “The City”, as distinctive from a thousand other cities in the tri-state area. It strikes me as a sort of honorific in this way. The definite article lends distinction in several senses of the word.
    There is also a traditon in English that the use of “The” by itself in a proper name or title implies the superlative and possession. “The King” in an historical document will be the highest king of a given realm or territory, and lesser kings will be referenced as “The king of”. In other contexts, the bare “The” implies posession as well as superlativity. An American journalist speaking of a meeting between George Bush, Jaques Chirac and Jose Maria Aznar would be perfectly justified in writing of “The President” and “The President of France”. No one would wonder whether “The President” was Bush or Aznar.
    I suspect that yet another factor is our desire to anthropomorphise our environs. Even in speaking about geography it is useful to speak by analogy to titles and proper names of people, and in many cases the use of “the” in place names seems to follow the tradional honorofics and forms of address fro for royalty and aristocracy, at least in English.

  4. Most of the Arabic loanwords in Spanish begin with al-, which is of course the Arabic article. Thus if you say in Spanish “la alfombra”, you would have been saying originally “the the rug”. Likewise the traditional Spanish term for the Qu’ran – Alcorán: “el Alcorán” is “the The Qu’ran”.

  5. Oh, and the same goes for Nahuatl loanwords. In Nahuatl, it is the -tl suffix that is the article. Thus tomatl, chocolatl, axolotl, Popocatepetl. The Popocatepetl = the the Popocatepe.

  6. Jeremy, the “I-{number}” convention extends all the way north thru Oregon to Washington State. I wonder if it has to do with the dominance of I-5 here. (By far the most heavily travelled freeway in the Pacific Northwest.) Most freeways have three digits, but “The Five” might have too many possible referents. & once the convention of I-{number} is established (I-5 was the first freeway up here, by a longshot), it’s naturally applied to other interstates.

  7. Well, it’s always a problem when you leave place naming up to the hoipolloi.
    The derivation of Istambul from Contantinople does seem to make better sense than the “The City” theory (which was the one I had believed as well). I’m somehow reminded of how Arabs stripped the “al” off Alexander assuming it to simply mean “the” (forming the name Iskander or Sikander, Al-Iskandrayia for Alexandria) while the opposite thing happened with imported Arabic words into English (the Almagest, the alcove etc).

  8. Actually I’m “somehow reminded” because the point was already mentioned in a previous comment.

  9. Being a Michigander transplanted to Ontario for purposes of higher education, I concur with the previous Canadian commenter’s note on Canadian definite-article usage re: interstates (what do they call them here? I’m not sure.) We didn’t do that in (southwest) Michigan — Grand Rapids has I-96 (called “the Ford Freeway” or “ninety-six” or “I ninety-six”) and US-131 (one thirty-one) and I-196 (“I one-ninety-six” or “one-ninety-six” or often, absentmindedly, just “ninety-six” — something that must confuse out-of-towners.) No “the” except in “the Ford Freeway” and that’s rare.
    Also, we almost never use the word “freeway” to denote limited-access divided highways — it’s nearly always highway, though freeway is of course understood.

  10. Somewhat off-topic but at least the conversation’s about numbers…
    Congratulations on your 1000th post!

  11. My god, you’re right! HEY EVERYBODY, THIS IS MY 1000TH POST! Um, excuse me, that was uncalled for. I’ll calm down now. I noticed it was getting into the 990s, but lost track. How did I ever get a thousand posts written? You know, if I’d been writing chapters of a novel instead of all this rubbish…
    *glares fiercely at screen*
    And if I’d known it was the thousandth, I would have done it about something weightier than “‘the’ + place name.” Ah well, probably just as well; I’d have procrastinated and not posted for days. Anyway, thanks for pointing it out and remedying my obliviousness.

  12. How about Ivory Coast or the Ivory Coast? Can anyone explain which is the proper form and why?

  13. An interesting pheonomenon that I’ve noticed has to do with newspapers and their offices. For example, the major daily in my city is The Toronto Star–yet if I had to go visit a friend that worked there, i would go to “The Toronto Star office.” English speakers never double the “the” (even though ‘she had had three people comment on it’). In the same way that we add extraneous “the”s sometimes, we subtract “the”s that really should be there other times. We seem to exist on a “one spoke ‘the'” basis.

  14. Arne Adolfsen says

    I’ve lived in SoCal since I was 18 months old, back in 1957, and I’ve long thought that you could tell a native (or near-native) by whether he or she called an LA Basin
    freeway by its name or by its number. So I know Ventura County, Orange County, etc. freeways by their numbers, but the only LA highways I know by number are
    the I-5 (which I still think of as the Golden State Freeway until you’re in the north San Fernando Valley) and the 405 (which I usually think of as the San Diego Freeway). I know the
    Hollywood Freeway and the Ventura Freeway are the same, but I have no idea what the number is. The same goes for the Santa Monica
    Freeway and the Pasadena Freeway. (And I guess the Glendale Freeway, but who knows where that is.)
    Anyway, yeah, “I-05” for California’s major interstate, numbers for highways north and south of the LA Basin, and mostly names for the LA Basin freeways.

  15. Yes, I think of the LA freeways by their names too (I spent my college years there in the late ’60s – early ’70s), though I’ve gotten used to the “405” thanks to more recent visits.
    Noah: I think plain old “Ivory Coast” is gaining favor, just as with “Congo”; there seems to be a trend to eliminate “the” with names of countries (probably accelerated by (the) Ukraine making such a point of it).

  16. On the subject of using the definite article or not, I recall as a music-obsessed teenager in the seventies how old it made people sound if they used the article in front of a rock group. My parents would refer to “the Led Zeppelin” or “the Pink Floyd”. This was no doubt a carry-over from the sixties’ main groups, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. However it all changed around my 18th birthday, when I stopped listening to the un-articled dinosaurs of the seventies and became a fan of The Clash, The Jam, and The Sex Pistols (not to mention The Ramones, The Undertones, The Boomtown Rats…). In the eighties, the definite article faded away again, e.g. Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Simply Red.

  17. Interesting point about band names; might make a good paper topic (or more likely already has). And let’s not forget The Band!

  18. And as a climax of this tendency, there was the “The the”. Really.
    Hat — as a kid I always looked forward to the odometer turning over. My dad found this annoying, and in truth I was always disappointed.
    There are a lot of lessons there. Maybe I’ll work it into my Chinggis Qan amnagement handbook / self-help book.

  19. I had assumed, perhaps someone can correct me, that the usage “the 405” came from using the names of freeways: “the 405” paralleling “the Ventura”. One used the definite article with the names of freeways so distinguish the freeway from the eponymous placename: “the Santa Monica” is a freeway; “Santa Monica” is a city.

  20. It’s perfectly okay having a thousandth post about articles and place names. I can’t imagine any more elevated topic. Thanks to this entry I learned several interesting new things, like the connection of Istanbul and Konstantinople. 🙂 And the Arabic dropping of al- from Alexander is another one I wasn’t aware of.

  21. jam: I think you’re right.
    johanka: Thank you!
    zizka: I look forward to the Chinggis Qan self-help book.

  22. The The was a great band–but don’t try looking him up on Amazon, as the search engine tries to outsmart you by stripping out unimportant words like “the”.
    I was reminded of this while listening to a mix tape of Eurythmics and The Del Fuegos, punching in my PIN number into the ATM machine near The Del Prado apartments in my neighborhood.

  23. One of Steven Brust’s Khaavren books, which are decent pastiche but otherwise almost totally unmemorable, has a fall-down funny and perfectly linguistically plausible bit about a ford which accretes words for “ford” in different languages until it ends up with a name that boils down to “Ford Ford Ford Ford Ford Ford.”
    Very funny bit.

  24. for more on the use of the definite article with country names, see the following thread on Linguist list.

  25. re: interstates (what do they call them here? I’m not sure.)
    We call them Highways, but we could call them Interprovincials. There is the TransCanada, which is, of course, The Number 1.
    Congratulations, languagehat, on that 1000th post. The joy of watching odometers flip has been erased forever with digital readouts. It’s just not the same as watching all those 9s begin to creep upward like eyes rolling in the head, with the furthest-most right-hand 9 positively gagging itself in anticipation of the turn and then they all go with a vomit of zeros and anyone watching just has to cheer at the momentousnous of it.
    A bit of mixing of metaphors there, but what the hell.

  26. I grew up near LA Airport and now live in San Francisco (and yes, I DO say, “I live in The City”). I didn’t notice the difference in the usage of the definite article until this post brought it to my attention. But it is definitely there.
    I suspect some other responses here may be on the right track when they mention the use of the names in the South. The earliest “Freeways” were introduced in Southern Cal and were named to refer to where (from downtown L.A.) they were headed. So they came to be called: the Pasadena, the Harbor, the Hollywood, etc.
    On the other hand, Freeways came late to the Bay area. Apart from the bridges across the bay and their approaches, most Freeways were built late in the Interstate Highway era, and were numbered. The few names were given as memorials to local heroes and didn’t stick in the way that the geographical ones in SoCal did.

  27. Names of streets: In Brit[t]ain: they designated the next via to the next oasis or watering hole Thus London road out[going London way] of the location until you got near the next civilised area and suddenly it was name from whence yer came. Numbers came with officials, who could not spell, so much easier numbers and so boring and unromantic.

  28. “We number our highways nowadays, our speed being so great we can remember little of their quality or character and are lucky to remember their number.”
    (E.B. White, “Walden.” in Travel In America By Various Hands. Ed.George Bradshaw. pp 355)

  29. Since I’m not a professional linguist, I can’t add much to this conversation except on the highways thing. Here in MD we use I-xx only some of the time. For instance, we say “Take I-95” or “I took 895,” but both are interstates. Everyone says “route 40” though instead of just “40.” And of course we all call I-66 “Route 66.”
    More along the lines of the topic (“the” + place), I noticed that in California, several people said to me “the” in front of the numbers, like “I drove up the 101.” I don’t know how widespread that is, though.

  30. The names of most ethnic groups around the world often translate as “the people” in English. So when we call them “The X people” we are usually saying “The the people people”. I don’t have any examples off the top of my head, but it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with a few hundred.

  31. You can number highways if you want, but things like “I get my kicks on Route 66” or “Highway 51 Revisited” destroy the intended bland neutrality. Here in the Northwest we had the “I-5 Killer” which branded that road in a pretty unfavorable way.

  32. Not to mention U.S. 666.

  33. (Congratulations on the 1000th post, also! I wonder how many log entries I’ve made? My primitive handcoding methods don’t provide an easy count. At least a novel’s worth, but really…)
    Here in the NYC suburbs we call I-80 I-80, and I-95 I-95. (Even “interstate 80” is perfectly idiomatic.) Never “the 95” or “the I-95”, but of course always “the Thruway”.
    “The” in general is fascinating (old hat to y’all language buffs, I’m sure). I posted just the other day (“http://www.davidchess.com/words/log.20031107.html#20031111”) about the general subject, after naively trying to write down some simple rules on English articles for a native Russian speaker who was having some trouble. Turns out there aren’t simple rules, of course…

  34. Yes, the differences between definite article, indefinite article, and no article are as flummoxing for a Russian speaker as the perfective/imperfective distinction is for us.

  35. As an American in a British “colony”, I was struck by the use of one particular “the”. Reference to street names are, in general no different – River Road, Colombo Street, etc. However it seems most “English” towns have a street called “High”. This street seems commonly to be called “The High Street”. Weird.

  36. excitableboy says

    In Honolulu, several streets have names that begin with “ala,” which is Hawaiian for way, street, or road. Thus Alakea Street means Street White Street, and Ala Moana Boulevard means Street Ocean Boulevard. There are three highways that are part of the Federal highway system but named H-1, H-2, and H-3 instead of the I-(number) that prevails elsewhere in the U.S. There’s also a Honda dealership owned by a man named Tony Honda and called, naturally, Tony Honda Honda.

  37. That’s great! I guess he was pretty much constrained to work for them; Ford probably wouldn’t hire a guy named Honda as a dealer.

  38. Doing catch-up after a weekend in Cyprus-on-Avon where, coincidentally, I was reliving my perennial amusement at the name of the River Avon. The Welsh word for river is “afon” so the waterway in question is in effect called the River River, or Afon Avon, depending on which side of it you are.
    And imagine the circumstances which might have lead to the tautology. “What is that called?” demands English invader. “River” replies the Welsh interlocuter, slightly puzzled. “Ok, that’s what we’ll call it then”.
    There must be many other examples of translation-tautology in place names, but I can’t off-hand think of any.
    Congratulations on reaching 1000!

  39. David — are you sure? I too am in the NYC suburbs and I think I have never heard 80 or 95 referred to with an “I-” in front of the number unless I myself was speaking.

  40. But a city’s proper name enters a language as itself, not as its translations. For instance, nobody conflates Las Vegas and The Meadows. I think that place names can be entertaining when deconstructed, but ultimately have to be taken into account as words that come (at least from foreign or past languages into modern English) as themselves – not meaning “The Meadows” or “The Angels”, but meaning “The Nevada City With The Casinos” and “The City In Southern California.” The La Brea Tar Pits may well technically translate as “The the tar tar pits”, but are understood to mean “The tar pits in the area called La Brea [which happens to be named for them].” Whether the bracketed bits are taken into account will depend entirely on an individual’s knowledge of the original meaning of “La Brea.”
    Or maybe I’m just Captain Obvious.

  41. (What I mean, of course, is that people with knowledge of the source language of the place’s name might have more insight into its name, hence “City of Angels” as a nickname for LA, but to the average anglophone American, Los Angeles is just “LA.”)

  42. Oh, absolutely. We’re just having fun here.

  43. Following up on Mike Long’s comment, I think the use of “the High Street” in Britain is a holdover from an earlier convention in which roads had descriptors instead of names per se. Conceptually this is like some earlier English patterns of naming in which you got a personal name, then some kind of indicator to distinguish you from other people with the same personal name. So you could be Matthew Edmundson (or Fitzgerald, or some other form of patronymic), Matthew Baker (occupation), Matthew Rivers (place of residence), Matthew Irish (putative place of origin), etc. None of these would be family names — your own children would have their own rather than taking yours, unless you were an aristocrat. Anyway, such names don’t necessarily take the article, but they have sort of the same feel.
    Both habits of use still obtained where I grew up in rural northern Maine. Main Street is, of course, American for High Street in its British sense — though we had a High Street which ran along the top of a steep slope. Our Main Street was often called “The Main Street.” Streets in town had names, but outside of town they had designators. I was fascinated as a kid by the fact that the Dexter road wasn’t called that by people who lived in Dexter: it was called the Dover road. We also had the Guilford road (somehow ignoring the intervening village of Abbott), the Sebec Lake road, the Old North road, the Sangerville road, and, interestingly, the Bangor road, which reflected the importance of Bangor (nearest movie theater, clothing shop, real restaurant, etc.) despite its being 50 miles away. The next town on the Bangor road was actually Charleston, but nobody called it the Charleston road.
    Similarly, people were often known by their occupations. My father was “the new lawyer” for 15 years, and my mother was “the new lawyer’s wife.”

  44. xiaolongnu, I was hoping you’d show up! Could you pop over to the inflection thread and give your opinion on the question of how long Chinese has been spoken in South China?

  45. No way! No fun allowed! This is the INTERNET! 😉
    (well, i’m having fun, anyway. nifty blog! i’m more of an art historian and magpie researcher of many hats, so feel completely free to ignore/deride any linguistic commentary i might offer; the only things I’m not talking out my ass about are English, French, and Latin. those are spottily accurate. anything else? probably highly suspect, but i try to be logical. also trying to pick up japanese. it’s not working so far.)

  46. In San Francisco, simple neighborhood names are usually arthrous (the Richmond, the Mission, the Excelsior, the Marina), but complex ones are not (North Beach, Hunter’s Point, Japantown); there are a few exceptions (Ingleside, Dogpatch, the Western Addition). What other cities are like that? New York, for one, is not (Chelsea, Bushwick, etc.)

  47. There are numerous River Avons in England. [from the o.p.]

    And Christchurch NZ has ‘(The) Avon (River)’/Ōtākaro — though no previous Celts to have called it anything.

    @Y simple neighborhood names are usually arthrous … but complex ones are not

    All Christchurch suburbs are anarthrous — even the short simple ones (Ilam, Hornby, Sumner, Richmond). There is ‘The Port Hills’, but that’s more of a geographic designation: marking the boundary of the City rather than a suburb.

    One exception: ‘The Four Avenues’ — which manages to be both complex and arthrous, and designates the (Colonial-era) city ‘proper’.

    Now, Christchurch’s city plan was re-purposed from Adelaide, South Australia, where we find four ‘Terrace’s. That plan (Surveyor-General Colonel William Light) also emphasises four: squares distanced around the central square; four strips of parkland (one running along the River) framing anarthrous North/West/South/but not East Terrace.

    Do Adelaideans call anything ‘The Four xxx’?

  48. John Cowan says

    New York, for one, is not [arthrous] (Chelsea, Bushwick, etc.)

    Mostly. However, the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, the Flatiron District, and the Financial District are arthrous; a synonym for the last is Downtown, although downtown and uptown are directions synonymous with north and south (there is no neighborhood called Uptown).

    Greenwich Village is anarthrous, but its synonym the Village and its components the West Village, the South Village, and the Far West Village are arthrous. The East Village, where I live, has never been part of Greenwich Village; it originated as a marketing term for the northern part of the Lower East Side, but now is considered a separate neighborhood. All other Manhattan neighborhood names are anarthrous.

    In Brooklyn, the North Side and the South Side (parts of anarthrous Williamsburg) are arthrous, whereas all the other neighborhoods are anarthrous; the multi-neighborhood regions such as southeastern Brooklyn are descriptions rather than names.

    The Bronx is arthrous as a whole, as are its multi-neighborhood regions, which constitute two systems: the East Bronx (divided into the Northeast Bronx and the Southeast Bronx by Pelham Parkway) and the West Bronx (divided into the Northwest Bronx and the Southwest Bronx by Fordham Road) on the one hand (separated by the Bronx River), and the South Bronx (synonymous with the Southwest Bronx in the other system) and the North Bronx (everything else) on the other. All the individual Bronx neighborhood names are anarthrous.

    In Queens, all the neighborhood names are anarthrous. Five of the six multi-neighborhood regions are descriptions (“southwestern Queens”, “central Queens”, etc.) rather than names; the Rockaways is the sixth region, and it is an arthrous name.’

    Staten Island neighborhood names are all anarthrous.

  49. I realize there’s another subtlety. The arthrous neighborhood names in SF can usually be followed by “District”: the Mission District, the Sunset District, etc. (though not “the Excelsior District”, I don’t think.) The Bronx is not like that.

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