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Article THE open for sale!

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-05-2014 G. Sampath

For the first time in the history of human civilization, an article is on sale. Not just any article but THE article. Yes, the English language’s one and only definite article is now available for purchase to the highest bidder. You can now buy the THE with the click of a mouse.

An Australian, known only as sweatyman, has unleashed a bidding war on eBay by offering to sell the word the written by hand on a scrap of paper. With two days to go for the close of bidding, 18 buyers have made 44 bids, with the highest bid till now touching $9,327, or Rs5.46 lakh.

Given that English is the second most widely spoken language on the planet (after Mandarin), and THE the most widely used word in the English language — besides being the only one of its kind (all the other articles are indefinite ones) — one must say this price is not a reflection of its true value.

Perhaps its true value in monetary terms might emerge in a scenario — say, in a linguistic dystopia — where people are forced to pay for every word they use. Whatever the price at which it retails, the owner of the would surely become as wealthy as the oil merchants and land sharks of our extra-linguistic world.

Sweatyman has, in fact, made some sort of an effort to enumerate the uses of the. He mentions, for instance, that it is “a versatile word that can be used in literally thousands of sentences”, that it is “ideal for any situation,” and that “this fun-loving item fits perfectly in the palm of your hand, wallet, or purse”. But his cursory sales pitch doesn’t even begin to do justice to the real value of the, and its true stature in the English vocabulary.

According to the Global Language Monitor, English is estimated to have more than one million words. Of them all, the is the most self-effacing and most service-oriented. It is no accident that it enjoys the distinction of being the most popular word in the language. For, to attain this position, it had to overcome the powerful egotistical urge to mean something.

Perhaps human beings prone to brooding over the meaning of life and sinking into depression at the discovery that life is meaningless might find inspiration from the life choices of the humble the — how it found purpose, and a fulfilling life, by shedding all pretence to meaning. It is because the has no identity of its own, that it can become anything and get along with anyone — capable of embracing “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet” in the span of a single short sentence.

The privileged classes of the English vocabulary — the nouns, the verbs, and even the adjectives and adverbs (who survive by sucking up to the nouns and verbs) — lead a luxurious life of leisure and idleness compared with the. The average noun might have to put in an appearance, maybe seven or eight times in a 1,000-word essay — maybe more, if it happens to be thematically central to the subject being discussed. But no matter what the subject of a given piece of writing, the definite article has to get up and report to work every single time, every single paragraph, and make sure to be the first one to do so.

The is not only the most hard-working word in the English language, it is also, in a crisis situation, the first to put its ego aside and sacrifice its own interests for the sake of the greater common good. On Twitter, for instance, where there are only 140 seats in every communicatory boat, if there happen to be a few fat passengers occupying a disproportionate number of seats, the is the first one to get up and graciously offer its three seats to some other member of the lexicon. If something has to be written down in a hurry, it is again the which volunteers to jump out of sentences to save time. On the other hand, you will rarely find a verb offering to do anything remotely as heroic — even though it is verbs that enjoy a reputation for being action words.

Though modest and retiring, it is the that lends dignity, gravitas and extra credibility to nouns — even to those that are too full of themselves. That is one reason why so many newspapers have the in their mastheads, which, of course, doesn’t stop them from hypocritically lopping off the definite article from every headline (except where they have extra space to fill).

Though it might seem bizarre for anyone to want to buy or sell a word, that too one as plebian as the, the auction of the definite article is a welcome reminder of both of the value of words, and of the fact that they are still free – the human language being perhaps one of the few public realms that are yet to be privatized. Unlike many of our rivers and mountains and genes, the bulk of our words are still a part of the commons. That doesn’t mean that we can take them for granted, or that linguistic privatization might never happen. We don’t have to wait for such a scenario to recognize the sterling services of the.

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