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A thorny problem

July 11, 2013

I’ve just been reading John Walsh’s column in today’s Independent, in which he ridicules the efforts of one Paul Mathis to introduce a single symbol for the most frequently used word in the English language, the. Walsh’s point is that we already have such a symbol, or used to have – the Anglo-Saxon character, thorn (I’m not able to do it on this keyboard, but it looks like an angular p with a stalk on top). But I’m afraid Walsh is wrong about this. Thorn did not mean the. It was a letter, not a word, and stood for the th sound.

I don’t myself think Mathis’s idea is such a bad one. As he points out, we already have a symbol for and, the ampersand (&). A single symbol for the would be useful and timesaving, though like the ampersand it would be more appropriate for informal than formal writing. What symbol we actually use for the purpose doesn’t matter; indeed we could resurrect thorn and put it to this new use. I think Walsh mocked Mathis’s proposal not because it is a bad one, but because he needed to fill up his column. 

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