Diseased Articles

23 Mar

In Grammar class last night we were talking about articles and why certain proper nouns take the definite article and others don’t. One reason is shared situational-cultural knowlege. We use “the” when all members of the discourse know about the noun, as in the sun, the moon, the diner, etc. A lengthy discussion ensued regarding diseases.

Why do we say the mumps, the measles, and the plague but not the AIDS or the cancer? What’s so strange and silly about saying “I’ve got the cancer”? (One person pointed out that Forrest Gump said his mother had the cancer.)

One hypothesis was related to historical linguistics. At some point in time many people got measles, mumps, and black plague, so it became shared cultural knowledge and thus took on the definite article. Perhaps, then, as AIDS and cancer become even more embedded in society, they will also take on “the.”

Do I smell a research project?

One Response to “Diseased Articles”

  1. Andy March 23, 2006 at 11:10 am #

    My gut feeling, based on about two seconds of reflection, is that AIDS and cancer won’t acquire the definite article. I’m guessing the “the” has simply been dropped over time, so newer terms for diseases won’t use it.I wonder also if part of it depends on dialect. A few days ago Al Franken talked about a character on his show who likes to announce, in an Irish brogue, “I’ve got a WEEE bit of the diarrhea.”I have no theory regarding the indefinite article in the case of “catching a cold.” In this case, leaving out the article sounds archaic to me.You could go to grants.gov and try to get funding for that research project.

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