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'The' Biggest Word Of 2019? Ask Ohio State University

John Minchillo
Associated Press

Merriam-Webster Dictionary has released its words of the year. At number six: "the."

The three-letter word familiar to every English speaker takes on special significance in Buckeye Country, where the precursor to "Ohio State University" sets the school apart.

But that significance gained wider appreciation in August, when Ohio State tried to trademark the word's use on clothing. After that, the dictionary's website saw a 500% spike in searches for the word.

"One of the oldest words in the English language, the definitive article 'the' is not usually the subject of lots of curiosity because it seems to be always there and quite stable," says editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski. "And yet when words suddenly appear in the news, they often appear in our data as look-ups."

The dictionary's blurb on the word points out how pronunciation of "the" breaks down based on whether it precedes a consonant or vowel. 

"The pronunciation of the can also indicate emphasis or suggest uniqueness," it goes on to say, "with a stressed version of \thee\, the difference between 'The Ohio State University' and 'THE Ohio State University' (notice how you would read the name in two different ways)."

Sokolowski says no matter how you pronounce it, trademarking it is tough proposition. Not only do other schools, like The College of William and Mary and The Catholic University of America, contain the article, Supreme Court cases have decided that the common use of formerly trademarked terms, like "dumpster," mean those trademarks are no longer valid.

"Going in the other direction strikes me as really going uphill," he says. "It's a really difficult thing to prove, the exclusive rights to a definite article in this case, so I'm not surprised that they were denied."

In September, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ruled that Ohio State's use of "the" was “merely a decorative or ornamental feature” and didn't function as a trademark. The school also filed to trademark "the" two months after clothing company Marc Jacobs did the same; the office denied that application as well. Ohio State was given six months to respond to the denial and reapply with different designs.

The 2019 word of the year, according to Merriam-Webster, was "they," which gained prominence and acceptance as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, especially in reference to people with nonbinary gender identities.  "Quid pro quo," "impeach," "crawdad," "egregious," "clemency," "snitty," "tergiversation," "camp" and "exculpate" rounded out the list.

Copyright 2019 WOSU 89.7 NPR News

Clare Roth