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07 October 2010 @ 08:54 am
A theory about "the Google"  
I got mugged by a short story idea yesterday at 5:30 AM. Eventually I gave up on getting back to sleep, got up, and wrote 850 words of notes about it. Now I'm not sure whether I'm going to work on that today or the YA novel, but as always I'm particularly brain-dead on the second day after a night of not enough sleep so what I'm going to do right now is write a silly little blog post about "the Google."

Tobias Buckell said on Twitter the other day: "What is with older folks in the Midwest adding a definite article before a product term? She's not using 'The Facebook' it's just 'facebook.'" This prompted me to begin wondering seriously about why this is so.

The inestimable Language Log addressed George W. Bush's infamous use of "the Google" a couple of years ago, but I have a theory.

We use "the" to refer to items that are unique in their context -- items where there's only one of them that we could possibly be referring to. We say that something fell on "the floor," even though each room has its own floor, because in any given room there's only one floor. For this reason, "the" is used when referring to monopoly public services like "the phone," "the water," "the electricity" ("oh no, the electricity went out"), "the newspaper," "the bus," and "the train." ("The hospital" is a special case; there may be many hospitals, but when you use "the hospital" you're referring to the generic service of hospitalization.) But nobody says they came by "the airplane," because we're keenly aware of air travel as a system of competing providers.

People who talk about "Google," "Facebook," and "email" without using "the" are aware of them as entities in a system of competing providers. ("Email" doesn't get a "the" because it's one of many communication alternatives including Twitter, IM, and SMS.) We look something up "on Google" because we are aware we could also be using Yahoo or Bing. But older folks who are familiar with public utilities but new to the Internet (note: "the" Internet because there's only one) have probably just been handed the one search engine by whoever configured their browser, so they treat it as something like a public utility -- they look things up on "the Google." Likewise, they are unaware of social networks other than "the Facebook" or communication methods other than "the email." You can expect to see this usage for anything that becomes dominant enough that the speaker is unaware of alternatives.

That's my theory and it belongs to me. And it's mine.

jimvanpeltjimvanpelt on October 7th, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC)
Cool discussion on the uses of "the." My inner grammarian squeed (I love to verb nouns).
et in Arcadia egobooapostle_of_eris on October 7th, 2010 04:03 pm (UTC)
the Chrysler
otoh, I have searched in vain for the origin, a few years ago, of the meme of dropping the final "con" syllable from the names of cons. E.g., "After Windy, we have to start getting ready for Cap."

David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 7th, 2010 04:21 pm (UTC)
Re: the Chrysler
I've also encountered that. It may have no origin per se... just the omission of a perceived-redundant syllable. If you think of the "Con" part of the name as like the "Airlines" part of United Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Midwest Airlines, etc. it kind of makes sense.
Pirate Monkeyb00jum on October 7th, 2010 04:03 pm (UTC)
What about use of the the before 'black' or 'gay' as in "the blacks" or "the gays". I'm fairly certain "the gays" are not a public utility. I usually see this with someone who is trying not to be racist or homophobic and failing.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 7th, 2010 04:18 pm (UTC)
People who refer to "the blacks" or "the gays" do so because they think of them as an undifferentiated group rather than as individual human beings. This is why it's important to be out.

On the other hand, I like the idea of homosexuality as a public utility...
(no subject) - marykaykare on October 7th, 2010 08:13 pm (UTC) (Expand)
S-47/19-Jshsilver on October 7th, 2010 04:27 pm (UTC)
Here in Chicago, I've noticed that when talking about grocery stores, Jewel is a special case. People will refer to it as "The Jewel," however, I've never heard people refer to other grocery chains in the same way. You never hear "The Dominick's" or "The Sunset Foods" or "The Whole Foods."
David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 7th, 2010 04:32 pm (UTC)
Probably influenced by the fact that jewel is also a common noun. If there were a grocery store called Carrot people would talk about going to "the Carrot."
Haddayr Copley-Woodshaddayr on October 7th, 2010 04:29 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I think it's just a Midwestern thing.

When I grew up in the Chicago area, we went to "the Jewel," not "Jewel," etc.
A Wandering Hobbitredbird on October 7th, 2010 04:33 pm (UTC)
"The newspaper" is an edge case, I think: we'll say something like "I read it in the paper" even if we have more than one newspaper. That might be influence by people for whom there is only one paper, mentally, whether because it's a one-newspaper city or because they and the people they know would only think of getting a particular one.

But I grew up in a household that got two newspapers daily, and "I read it in the paper" or "in the Times" both feel natural. (The ones that don't get articles are papers without "The" in their names: so, "the" Times, Post, Daily News, Wall Street Journal, Globe (and "El Diario," not just "Diario," but a Spanish noun probably isn't very informative here), but just "Newsday," "Metro," or "AM New York."

I would like to know if all this makes sense to people who are used to a choice between a newspaper or no newspaper, rather than between two or more daily newspapers.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 7th, 2010 04:36 pm (UTC)
"The newspaper" is, I think, a generic like "the hospital" -- yes, there are alternatives, but for purposes of the current discussion the specifics are unimportant, it's the service or medium I'm talking about. You could also talk about hearing something on "the radio" or seeing it on "the TV" if the specific station isn't immediately relevant.

I imagine that New Yorkers might also have said "I came on the IRT" instead of just "the subway" back when there were competing subway lines.
(no subject) - kate_schaefer on October 7th, 2010 04:40 pm (UTC) (Expand)
What Things Used to Be - ladyjestocost on October 8th, 2010 01:40 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - scarlettina on October 7th, 2010 10:11 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Kate Schaeferkate_schaefer on October 7th, 2010 04:36 pm (UTC)
Regional, regional, regional, and probably generational as well. Here in Seattle, we drive on I-5. Down in LA, people drive on the I-5. It's the same road, and there's only one of it.

Get your kicks on Route Sixty-Six, not the Route Sixty-Six.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 7th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)
I've noticed some people around here referring to I-5 as "the 5" and they're not even transplanted Angelenos. Bugs the heck out of me.
(no subject) - jodysherry on October 8th, 2010 03:36 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - davidlevine on October 8th, 2010 03:42 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - holyoutlaw on October 7th, 2010 07:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - davidlevine on October 7th, 2010 07:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - kate_schaefer on October 7th, 2010 07:42 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - scarlettina on October 7th, 2010 10:12 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Reply Hazy, Ask Again Laterreplyhazy on October 7th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)
I like your theory. I'm my 87-yr-old mom's "tech support" and these usages are common in conversation with her. But it also immediately made me think of this:

Caller: “Hi, I think there’s a bug on your website. I can’t log into my account”

Me: “Okay, that may be a bug. Let me get some basic information from you. What internet browser are you using?”

Caller: “What’s a browser?”

Me: “That’s what you use to surf the Internet. Popular browsers are Internet Explorer and Firefox.”

Caller: “Oh. I think I’m using Yahoo.”

Me: “That’s a search engine.

Caller: “Ask.com?”

Me: “That’s another search engine. I need to know what browser you use to get to that website.”

Caller: “Oh, I think I know what you mean. I’m using Hotmail.”

(This goes on for about 10 minutes. Eventually, we locate the bug. While I’m writing up the report, I’m making small-talk with the customer.)

Me: “You said you’re in college? What do you study?”

Caller: “Computer science. I’m really good at it!”

This is not a senior citizen, this is merely a clueless college student. Years ago it seemed like only us geeks used computers and the clueless ignored them. Well I remember, lo, the 80s, when a conversation about computers would drive 75% of local fen away from the table. These days more and more people are using computers the way I use my car: start it up, hope it goes, make panicked call for expert when it doesn't.
Kalimackalimac on October 7th, 2010 05:25 pm (UTC)
I have another theory, albeit it only explains part of this. (It wouldn't explain the use of "e-mail" instead of "the e-mail." Note, though, that people say "the mail" to refer to snail mail.)

My theory is that we don't say "the Google" or "the Facebook" because Google and Facebook are proper names of individual entities. People who do say "the" are perhaps not aware that they're names rather than generic descriptions.

Note: things like rock bands get "the" ("The Beatles") because they're collective nouns; they're not individual entities, as there is more than one Beatle.

Note 2: it has accordingly always bugged me when the superhero character is called "The Batman". I see "Batman" as his proper name in his superhero persona. "Superman" refers to a specific character dreamed up by Siegel and Shuster; "the Superman" refers to a generalized entity dreamed up by Nietzsche.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 7th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
People have a lot of problems with "the" in general, actually. One of my pet peeves is when people don't understand that "the" is part of a title, for example "last night we watched the Sound of Music."
Lawrence M. Schoenklingonguy on October 7th, 2010 06:02 pm (UTC)
Cogent. But not nearly as elegant as your previous theory about the brontosaurus.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 7th, 2010 06:09 pm (UTC)
Deldel_c on October 7th, 2010 07:03 pm (UTC)
This rule might not work outside America. I'm thinking of how you watch TV (unless it's a particular television set in the room, in which case you watch "the TV"). But in Britain we say we watch "the telly", and no, that's got nothing to do with the BBC.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 7th, 2010 07:36 pm (UTC)
In the US, we do say we're "watching TV" but you might also say that you saw something "on the TV" as well as "on TV."
(Deleted comment)
David D. Levinedavidlevine on October 7th, 2010 07:37 pm (UTC)
Anne Elk, brackets, Miss, brackets.
billeylerbilleyler on October 7th, 2010 07:56 pm (UTC)
Californians (and perhaps others in other parts of the country) seem to put "the" in front of highway numbers. "Take the 880 to the 5 and go north on the 160."

Another slightly different usage that certainly isn't prevalent in NM.
Mary Kaymarykaykare on October 7th, 2010 08:20 pm (UTC)
Mostly it's SoCal that does that (and peopleinfluenced by them). My theory is that that is because Angelenos view their freeways as the Platonic Ideal of Freeways, of which all other freeways are mere shadows. And there's some justification for that view.
Lady Jestocostladyjestocost on October 8th, 2010 01:42 am (UTC)
the Google
It can't take a definite article; it's a verb!
Tomvoidampersand on October 8th, 2010 01:53 am (UTC)
Among my crowd when they are being "hip" it's "The GOOG".