(the) Gambia, (the) Lebanon, etc.

I wasn't going to do a whole post tonight. Really, I wasn't. I was going to be a productive member of academia and get some real work done--having spent all of my day in meetings. But in a clever moment of self-sabotage, I brought the wrong version of my document home, so there's no point in working on it. Genius!

This post is in response to some off-topic commenting after the (the) menopause post. (I do have some rather control-freaky tendencies when it comes to off-topic commenting. If someone comments about something that deserves its own post, then I try to stem the tide of comments on it. It's not [necessarily!] that I want the glory for posting about it. It's that the comments are not searched when one does a 'search this blog' search, thus no one can ever find those interesting comments again--and I aim for searchability here!)

So...the comments back there are about which geographical names get a the in front of them, and whether or not these differ by dialect. Before I get into listing these, let's start with a little primer on the relationship between proper nouns (particularly place names) and definite determiners like the.

A referring expression--that is to say (typically) a noun phrase that is uttered/written in order to represent some entity in a (real or imaginary) world--is definite if it is used in a particular context to refer to something that is uniquely identifiable. So the indefinite noun phrase a linguist is used when the speaker does not expect that the hearer will be able to identify a unique linguist for the context--as in (1).
(1) A linguist walks into a bar...
Once you've said (1), there is a unique linguist in the context, so you can then go on to say (2):
(2) The linguist says to the bartender "Is that a Canadian accent I'm detecting?"
Proper nouns, like England or lynneguist are (sometimes phrasal) nouns that refer uniquely. Even if you knew your conversational partner didn't know someone named Letitia Bogbottom, you would (usually) utter it without any determiner, as in (3), because there's no reason to mark it as definite since it's inherently definite.
(3) (*The) Letitia Bogbottom walks into a bar...
But some proper names include a definite determiner (and some languages put determiners with proper nouns more regularly--so in German, I'm told, it's much more natural to call someone the equivalent of the Donald than it is in English). In English, a number of types of place names take a definite determiner as a matter of course:
River names: the Mississippi, the Yangtze, the Ouse (which, along with the Uck ranks among may favo(u)rite British river names. Fancy a paddle down the Uck? Aren't you glad to know that Harveys Bitter is made on the Ouse?)

Plural names: the United States, the Outer Hebrides, the Netherlands

(Some kinds of) descriptive phrasal names often take a the: the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union
And then there are some apparently exceptional cases. For instance, cities generally don't take the but the Bronx does (because it's named after its river). Mountains generally don't, but the Matterhorn does (I have no idea why). And countries whose names aren't plural or descriptive phrases generally don't take a the (Canada, Russia, Sri Lanka), but some do. Which brings us (finally!) to: which ones do, which ones don't, which ones are AmE and which ones are BrE. Last night, I sat down at a very nice pub (with a sausage-and-mash [BrE; AmE mashed potatoes]-themed menu; woo-hoo!) with BrE-speaking Better Half and AmE-speaking Recyclist (whom I called the Recyclist last time I mentioned her, but what's a definite determiner among friends?) in order to quiz them on country names. Here's what we came up with:

the Congo (referring to the river or the country)(the) Congo (referring to the country--aka Congo-Brazzaville)
the GambiaGambia
(the) Ukraine(the) Ukraine
the LebanonLebanon

Each of these deserves some comment.

Congo: The name of the country is based on the name of the river, and any river gets a the. Confusingly, there are now two countries that border that river that have Congo in their names, but the country formerly known as Zaire (and before that the Belgian Congo) is generally referred to these days as DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Now I have to say here that this is more my judg(e)ment than Recyclist's. In Africanist linguistic circles, at least in the US (in which I used to travel), the name of the country doesn't have a the, as the the gives it a kind of 'colonial' feel. So, I might say the Congo to refer to the place in pre-independence days, or to refer to the region more generally, but in order to refer to one of the sovereign nations, I'd leave off the the. Note that in the full names of the countries ([Democratic] Republic of...), there is a the, translated from the French name.

Gambia: Here I'm cheating and ignoring Recyclist's evidence. Recyclist says the Gambia, and so I insisted to her that she couldn't, because she's an AmE speaker. After some prodding, it turns out that she has a Gambian sister-in-law and she learned to say the Gambia from her, not from other AmE speakers. I don't think I'd ever heard the Gambia until I left the US, but I hear it frequently from a fellow Scrabbler, the Twitcher, who travels often to that part of Africa. He is of a certain generation. A certain generation older than Better Half, who says: "I'd never say that. It's too colonialist." Again, this has a the because the name of the country is based on the name of the river.

Ukraine: Both AmE and BrE have the Ukraine, but both my informants and I believe that since it's become a country in its own right, we're more likely to call it Ukraine. We've probably been influenced by the fact that many newspapers are now eschewing the the. It's thought to have originally meant 'borderland', and the the came from the sense of the name as a description.

Lebanon: While Better Half generally thought most of the definite-determinered examples sounded "old-fashioned", he was adamant that it's always the Lebanon. I think he's been unduly influenced by the Human League. The the here apparently comes from the name of the mountain that the country is named after: Mount Lebanon or the Lebanon. But why does this mountain have a the when most others don't? Don't ask me. Other than in the context of discussing 1980s music from Britain, I've never heard the Lebanon from an AmE speaker.

Argentina/Sudan: Neither of my informants had any inclination to say the Sudan, perhaps demonstrating that that the is pretty far on its way out of regular use. (Sudan comes from the Arabic for 'black land'.) And while neither would say the Argentine to refer to the place, BH recogni{s/z}ed it as a really old-fashioned name for Argentina. The Argentine seems to have poetic roots.

After that tour of the world, I'm exhausted. Feel free to leave other examples in the comments.

P.S. 22 August 2014 Twitter follower  @maceochi


  1. You are currently residing in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. After reading your post and referring to the full name of that odd collection of countries and principalities (is that correct?), “I am heading over to the UK” makes perfect sense. Previously it made only imperfect sense.

  2. The two largest islands of New Zealand are the imaginatively named North Island and South Island. Only visitors would call them that; to the locals they’re the North and South Islands. I can’t say whether American tourists are more likely to leave off the determiner, though.

    The third largest island is always referred to as Stewart Island, so nothing special there. The fourth largest is Great Barrier Island, always without a ‘the’, unlike the Great Barrier Reef across the ditch.

  3. Google Reader randomly gave me old posts about the word "chav", and names for spices tonight as if they were new posts. Not sure what was up with that.... interesting reads though!

    Definitely agree with Carey that no local would say "North island"

    People from other countries make the mistake of referring to them like islands... as in "they live on the north island" when a local would say "in the north island". (although we (locals) would use "on" for a smaller island, like "they have a house on Waiheke island")

    Or otherwise people from overseas will say "NZ's north island", which also sounds wrong.

    Even though "the north island" is apparently the most boringly literal place name ever, local usage doesn't treat it that way.

  4. The formal name of The Gambia is The Republic of The Gambia; like the Bronx, it's named after a river. In addition, the Bahamas, the Comorros, both Congos, the Marshall Islands, the Netherlands (and the Netherlands Antilles), the Northern Mariana Islands, the Philippines, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines (one country), use articles in both their short and long official forms.

    Niger and Sudan, on the other hand, don't use the article in their short name, but do use it in the long official name.

    The U.S. is usually so called, but has no article in its official names.

    On another point, I think the Czech Republic and the Dominican Republic are the only countries whose English name is an adjective modifying a generic noun.

    1. How about the United Kingdom? That's also an adjective modifying a generic noun.

  5. How about "the Hague" (Den Haag)?

  6. Hehe, my map of Knizilind indicates the two larger islands as "North Island" and "The Mainland".
    Go the 'canes.

  7. The NZ islands could be thought of as descriptive common noun phrases, in which case you'd have to use a the with them, or as proper names, in which case you wouldn't have to. I wonder if there's a little of that going on in the local use of the (no matter whether there's a capital letter on it--I put little stock in orthographic explanations because spelling is so arbitrary). At least, historically there would be. Newcomers, treating them as established names, aren't so inclined to put the the there.

    Didn't do the Hague as it's neither a country, nor something that differs in the two dialects. It's a straightforward translation from the Dutch, and is/was a descriptive name in Dutch.

    Sorry about the reposting of the old items--it happens sometimes, but not all the time, when I change tags on old posts in order to make them match with new tags. The weird thing is that yesterday I changed four tags, but only two registered as 'new' in the feed. I have no idea why.

  8. I got a lecture from a friend recently when I called it the Ukraine. And I agree that 'the Gambia' and 'the Congo' sound colonial.

    One of the things I never get with 'the' is band names. You reminded me when you said 'The Human League'. I'm sure I'd just say Human League. A lot of my favourite bands have 'the' at the beginning of their names, given that that has been the trend recently... But there's two I can't stand. My mother always calls them THE Dirty Pretty Things, and everyone ever calls Arctic Monkeys THE Arctic Monkeys. Sorry, off topic.

  9. Wikipedia has The Human League, though fan sites seem to vary. Can't find an official band site.

    If I've erroneously put a the in front of the band name, I'll claim that that balances out their putting a the in front of Lebanon!

  10. On (the) one hand, this, this, this, this, this and this.

    On the other, this, this and this.

    IIRC, and dimly related, ILM has some good stuff on the Am/Br differences between (say) "U2 sucks" and "U2 suck".

  11. Thanks for the feed weirdness explanation; i had been wondering why posts from 2006 would suddenly show up.

    I was also going to ask about the Hague and Le Havre, but someone beat me to it. Do you have any idea why the Hague's determiner is translated, but Le Havre's isn't?

  12. John Cowan: I was surprised when I checked about the official name of the US and found you were right: Officially "United States of America". A bet I would have lost.

    The section of this post about "the" with peoples names reminded me of a practice that I find quite annoying (especially when a former boss did it): using a definite determiner and a plural to make a name into a generic word for someone of similar qualities. For example,
    "The lynneguists of the world would say..."
    "Linguists interested in variation of English would say..."
    Makes me crazy!

  13. Scots tend to say "Shetland" for what the English call "The Shetlands". Ditto Orkney. Who says "Faroe" and who "The Faroes"?

    1. As a southern Englishman, I quickly had my card marked when visiting their parts of the world to say 'Shetland' and 'Orkney' (with or without a trailing 'Islands'), but never 'the Shetlands' or 'the Orkneys'.

      Similarly, I quickly learned that 'Færoe' is disliked in those beautiful islands, as it smacks of Danish overlordship. Therefore, for me, it's 'the Faroe Islands' if mentioning the place once or unexpectedly, and 'Faroe' if in a context where it's coming up regularly.

      Great post lynneguist - thank you.

      - Steve

  14. I used to work in a bank and in pre-computer days customers’ account details were filed under a kardex system. One of our staff had Spanish parents and she was bilingual: she spoke perfect English-well perfect for South London (pronounced “Saarf Lunun”)! When she was carrying out Record Clerk duties it could be a major problem, as she would insist on prefixing names of clubs and societies etc. with “the” so you would find accounts indexed as “The Anytown Tennis Club” “The Big Town History Society” etc. We must have had the biggest “T” section in the bank and it made alphabetical filing seem rather pointless!

  15. I work for the US Refugee Program, and routinely need to explain to case workers that no, The Gambia is not a data mistake in the database, and yes, the actual name of the country is The Republic of The Gambia, per US State Dept guidelines. Good times, good times.

  16. That's funny Peter! To that point, Wendy, does you database show "The Gambia" or "Gambia, The"?

  17. Most BrE speakers I know say Lebanon without the 'the'; that also includes Robert Fisk who has been based there for the last 25 years.

    I suspect many of the differences you mention are cases of free variation or idiolects rather than of differences in geographical dialects.

  18. "The Argentine" occurs in the lyrics to the song "Tangerine":

    And I've seen
    Toasts to Tangerine
    Raised in every bar
    Across the Argentine

  19. First time I've commented on this blog. I'm an occasional visitor. Hello.

    Now, about the 'the' in The Lebanon... I would say that this exists in a previous generation's British English first because, as with rivers, the Lebanon is a geographic feature. Second, Lebanon was a region, a sub-national entity, part of Arab, then Ottoman, then French Mandate territory (last 1,300 years or so covered there).

    On both these counts, you could compare it with The Galilee, found just to the south of The Lebanon.

    Interestingly, in the same part of the world lies the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, more commonly referred to as Jordan (without a 'the'). Named for a river, the country is called Al-Urdun (The Jordan) in modern Arabic. In French it is Transjordan, or certainly used to be...

  20. I know that The Hague is only peripherally on topic, but I still want to ask a question:

    Is there any other major place name whose official name ('s Gravenhage) begins with an apostrophe?

    1. 's Hertogenbosch

    2. Yes, and that is Hieronymus Bosch's native town; his painterly name comes from the town's name (see, for example, Leonardo da Vinci, or Merisi who came from the town of Caravaggio).

      But The Bronx, I believe, is not named for the river in that borough. Rather, it derives from the Bronck family that were the original Dutch founders of the village: the Broncks. The river took the family name in plural form. And the "cks" became "x."

  21. Like rebecca, I've stopped saying "the" with Ukraine after being lectured. Or actually, more like being shouted at by a highly offended Ukranian whose explanation didn't make any sense at all (maybe because she was so outraged, or more likely due to intoxication). but that's enough that I've dropped the "the" just in case.


  22. I think the reason 'the Ukraine" doesn't make any sense is because Ukraine already is a phrase meaning at the edge. 'U' means 'at' and Kraini means something like edge or extreme. Therefore 'the at the edge' sounds kind of silly especially since we are talking about a language without articles in the first place.

  23. "The Philo Road" refers to Rt.130 going south out of town from Urbana, Illinois, to the small town of Philo. This may be no big deal upon first glance, but actually, it is interesting. The original dirt road was paved with a single lane of concrete. It was first referred to as "The Philo-Sidney slab" and I suspect that's why "The" stayed as part of its name, at least among older folks.

  24. The absence of 'the' from 'West Indies' (as in the cricket team) always sounds strange to me. 'We're playing West Indies today'... ugh, no, can't say it.

    And following on from doug sundseth's question about apostrophes at the beginning of place names, is there anywhere but Westward Ho! in Devon that ends with an exclamation (or other) mark?

  25. Roads are another matter altogether!

    West Indies does take a the when it refers to the place (following the 'plural' rule), but referring to the team is different.

  26. Just off the topic a little bit, but there are references on tourist websites like this, "Tip: purchase your tix to the El Alhambra before you even reach Granada." I count three the's in front of Hambra there.

    Those of us who live here on imaginatively named Long Island always say "on" Long island. Saying "in Long island" identifies you as an outsider automatically.

  27. I have been known to scream at the television set in rage upon hearing some newsroom nitwit, just transferred here from wherever those creatures are manufactured, say "the Puget Sound". Happens about once a month or so. It is, of course, just "Puget Sound", thanks. You wouldn't say "The Lake Michigan", would you? No, I didn't think so.

    "The Puget Sound region" is appropriate, however.

    In German, there is "Die Schweiz" (Switzerland).

  28. I'm surprised that the Piddle doesn't make your rivers list.

  29. Just as fnarf mentions "Die Schweiz", in Spanish there are a few interesting place names that can take the definite determiner, such as:

    La Argentina
    La China
    La África (also el África)

    Of course Spanish does lots of things differently, such as the use of the definite article with body parts.

    Also, here's a good read: Why Rose is the Rose: On the use of definite articles in proper names [pdf]

  30. Speaking of Spanish influences, I've noticed that in California (and possibly the rest of the Southwest), they say "take the 101" when referring to state or interstate highways, whereas on the East Coast it's always "take 95".

    1. Very late response: using "the" with freeways is more common in southern California; in northern California we "take 101" (though I have also heard "the Bayshore freeway").

  31. Regarding "The Galilee," my understanding is that it comes from "Galil el-goyim" (I'm sure I have that preposition wrong) meaning circuit or ring of unbelievers, referring to who settled there during the Hebrews' Babylonian exile.

  32. It smacks again of colonial days perhaps, but I wonder if "the Lebanon" owes anything to "the Levant" as a near similar sound and (partly) area? And, by the way, when did "the Near East" become "the Middle East"?

  33. Risking straying off topic, it's strange how "the French", "the English" and "the Dutch" are all plural, while "the German", "the Dane" and "the Colombian" are all singular. "The Japanese" and "the Swiss" I'd also take as plural nowadays. It actually makes it slightly awkward to be non-sexist with the "-sh"/"-ch" nationals in the singular since they require the addition of a -man/-woman ending. I'm still not sure exactly how to speak of a singular Chinese person nowadays, since Chinaman sounds appalling, and "a Japanese" and "a Swiss" sound jarring too.

  34. Re: the freeways in California. In the San Francisco area, people take 280 or 101 or 80, not "the" 280 etc. You can always tell somebody is from Southern California when she or he says "the" 101.

  35. Interesting about those bodies of water called sounds too, fnarf. It's Long Island Sound, without the article, and it's also Pamlico Sound, Core Sound, Back Sound, Bogue Sound, etc. in North Carolina, sans article.

  36. hodge -

    Sorry for the late response - the database uses "The Gambia" with GA as the short code. The training materials have GA = "The Gambia, The Republic of". Gambia is the only country wearing The in our semi-official database. Lebanon is the-less, and it is "Republic of South Korea" and not "The Republic of South Korea".

  37. I'm slightly late to this, but never mind.

    Another one for the British river names list: the Quaggy, which runs through Lewisham.

    And on the 'the' point, another London reference: the roads which appear on maps (and in one case the UK Monopoly board) as 'Old Kent Road' and 'City Road', but which Londoners refer to as the Old Kent Road and the City Road. Off the top of my head, I think it's only those two, and the New Kent Road, and no other roads in London. And in the case of the City Road, I suspect the usage is becoming weaker anyway.

  38. Very late. But:

    Wait! Is either "A linguist walks into a bar," or, "The linguist says to the bartender, 'Is that a Canadian accent I'm detecting,'" an actual joke? They may be examples only. But I felt set up and ready for the rest of a joke. Do you have the rest?

    D. M.
    Saint Paul, MN

  39. It's trying to be an in-joke. I'm a linguist who walks into bars and has bartenders guessing I'm Canadian--hence the on-going Canadian Count on this blog.

    But, if you can think of a punchline to the joke, please leave it here!

  40. A Linguist walks into a bar...

    and has to be carried out legless and languageless?

  41. I was thinking that both lines were part of the joke.

    A linguist walks into a bar, and orders a beer. The bartender says, "Is that a Canadian accent I'm detecting?" And the linguist says "[INSERT PUNCHLINE]."

    I still haven't got anything, but I'm sure there must be one...

  42. flatlander: Torontonians also say, I'm told "the N" for numbered highways. Go figure.

  43. "just give me the beer, eh!"

  44. But the Bronx River was named after the Bronx, not vice versa!

    The Bronx was the land belonging to Jacob Bronck. I believe the "the" in the name is a relic of Dutch, as are most peculiarities of New York English, e.g. the part of a house referred to as "the stoop" or the playground piece of equipment called a "sliding pond" (which I've read is a corruption of the Dutch word "bahn", meaning track).

    For the record, I am a native Bronxite who refers to The Gambia.

  45. Anonymous, the borough of the Bronx (originally the "Annexed District of the Bronx") was named after the Bronx River, which in turn was named after Bronck's farm. All rivers take "the", though, and the district/borough kept the "the".

  46. A linguist walks into a bar, and orders a beer. The bartender says, "Is that a Canadian accent I'm detecting?" And the linguist says, "Don't know a-boat that, but that sure is an interesting use of the present continuous."

  47. I was thinking that both lines were part of the joke.

    A linguist walks into a bar, and orders a beer. The bartender says, "Is that a Canadian accent I'm detecting?" And the linguist says "[INSERT PUNCHLINE]."

    I still haven't got anything, but I'm sure there must be one...

    How about: "That was a wry comment."

  48. Your post does a very good job of answering my first question (the Sudan, and so on).

    Now I'm wondering why the Monument in London is known as just "Monument". Any ideas?

  49. I have lived in Ukraine and was also told off sternly for using 'the' before the name, but never managed to find out why it offended Ukrainians, who don't use articles in their language (or, indeed, Russian).

    I feel that Ukrainians may have been influenced by ENGLISH speakers who have told them that using the 'the' sounds colonial, as per comments above. There just doesn't seem to be a native reason for it. After all, Ukraine is Russian/Ukrainian for 'on the edge' or 'on the border' - doesn't that provide more grounds to be offended?

    Related point: I attended the University of East Anglia in Norwich (fine linguistics classes!). Students, faculty and the instituion itself called it just 'UEA' (eg '...at UEA...'), wheras locals, including local staff, referred to 'the UEA'.

  50. In response to nmmad:

    I notice that all the people names that could be either singular or plural would be awkward to add an 's' to: *Frenches, *Englishes, *Spanishes, *Swisses, etc. All the ones that can only be singular take an 's' very easily, without having to add another syllable: Germans, Danes, Latvians, etc.

  51. Everyone in the United Kingdom uses the abbreviation the UK. And yet expatriate Brits — at least Brits in some expat communities — say things like 'back in UK'.

  52. Has no one got anything to say about The Yemen?

  53. Anonymous

    Has no one got anything to say about The Yemen?

    Before it was a political entity, it was a region within Arabia. 'The Right Hand Side' if you were facing south.

  54. Doug Sundseth asked: Is there any other major place name whose official name ('s Gravenhage) begins with an apostrophe?

    Yes: 's-Hertogenbosch (pop. 142,000). And just as 's-Gravenhage (originally des Graven hage: the count's hedge) has the alternative form Den Haag, so 's-Hertogenbosch (originally des Hertogen bosch: the duke's wood) has the alternative form Den Bosch.

    On another matter, David Crosbie writes that: Before it was a political entity, [Yemen] was a region within Arabia. 'The Right Hand Side' if you were facing south.

    Isn't it "the right-hand side as you face east" (i.e. the south)?

    In Welsh the words de = south and de = right(-hand) similarly share a facing-the-rising-sun standpoint.

  55. Is there any other major place name whose official name ('s Gravenhage) begins with an apostrophe?

    Yorkshire is full of them. 'Ull, 'Alifax, 'Uddersfield, 'Eckmondwyke'...

    Je vais chercher mon manteau.

  56. Might I opine that the "the" in "the Lebanon" and "the Sudan" come from a direct translation of the Arabic - al-Lubnan and al-Sudan respectively where they do take the definite article.

  57. Anonymous

    Yes, but all countries have the definite article in Arabic. So now you have to explain why don't have the in other country names that might have come from Arabic.

    (Not that Lebanon comes to us from Arabic.)

    1. No, all countries do NOT have the definite article in Arabic. They are definite nouns, but they don't take al- unless in specific cases. So al-Urdan, as-Soomaal etc, but Filastin, Lubnan, Suria, Masr etc - no definite article.

  58. Ukraine derives from Ukrainian "країна" - country and not from Russian "край" - corner, border, edge. By the way...

  59. Denys

    The word derives from a time long before the existence of distinct Russian and Ukrainian languages and nationalities.

    The rest of the world discovered the word as used by expanding Imperial Russia. Seen from Moscow, it was a region on the periphery to be taken from the Tatars, Ottomans, Hungarians, Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes or whoever else was temporally in charge of it, or part of it.

    As a cultural space that was not so much conquered as liberated by friendly Moscow, we would use the other Russian term Little Russia. What the locals called the place was their own affair.

    We had the linguistic equivalent in Medieval England. As we expanded into Wales, we termed the region on the border as The (Welsh) Marches.

    In Africa, the colonial powers identified regions for potential expansion by names such as The Gambia, The Congo, the Sudan. The names remained after successful colonisation, though in English we had to distinguish between The Belgian Congo and The French Congo and between The French Sudan and The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

    In South America, Spain identified a region as The Argentine before and after colonising it.

    The Lebanon and The Yemen were areas within the Ottoman Empire which we saw as regions rather than provinces at the time that we began to speak and write of them in English.

    It's an English language trick. Russian has no definite article to make the distinction. Spanish, French and Arabic use their definite articles for political states and regions equally. We added The to show our understanding of how the foreign colonisers saw the areas.

    It used to be a quirky anomaly, but right now everybody is speaking seriously of Ukraine without the colonising article.

    We have another frontier region in Great Britain, named by both England and Scotland as The Borders. It has no political identity — that is no serious and genuine political identity. For a time legal documents referred to England and Scotland and Berwick-upon-Tweed, the last-named being a border town now firmly within England. Because this formula was not used in peace treaties, the joke used to be that Berwick was still technically at war with much of continental Europe. For all I know, they may be at war with the United States of America.

  60. I would like to enter 'the Dalles' into the discussion.

  61. Thanks so much to Anonymous for the comment on the possible reason why Brits often say "the Lebanon" and "the Sudan": the "the" is translated from the Arabic al-Lubnan or al-Sudan. When I am in Dubai, everyone looks at me in wonder when I say "the Lebanon". They all say "Lebanon" and wonder why I use the definite article. My family over in Dubai are Lebanese, Canadians and Swiss. I am the only Brit (also Swiss and Irish) and grew up in London, thus I always heard "the Lebanon". Now this is a lovely explanation!

  62. Anonymous: It is not that case that Lebanon is pronounced "al-Lubnan" in Arabic, it is in fact just "Lubnan". Certainly no native speaker would say "I am from the Lebanon," or "Ana min al-Lubnan"; one might instead say "I am from the Lebanese Republic", or "Ana min al-Jomhoriya al-Lubnaniya" but then the "the" applies to "Lebanese", and not "Lebanon".

    David Crosbie: It is also not the case that all countries have the definite article in Arabic.

    In fact, in Arabic, certain country names are preceded with "al" (an equivalent of English "the"), while others are not, and the choice is rather arbitrary as far as I can tell. For example, here are the Arabic names of the countries from the table in the original post, where "al" denotes "the":

    Congo -> Congo
    Gambia -> Gambia
    Ukraine -> Okranya
    Lebanon -> Libnaan
    Argentina -> al-Arjenteen
    Sudan -> al-Sudaan

    Going through a list of more countries and their Arabic names, I could not figure out any pattern for when the "al" applies, and when it does not. Consider,

    Preceded by "al":
    - Argentina -> al-Argentine
    - Brazil -> al-Barazeel
    - China -> al-Seen
    - India -> al-Hind
    - Japan -> al-Yabaan
    - Portugal -> al-Portugal
    - Yemen -> al-Yaman

    Not preceded by "al":
    - Canada -> Canada
    - Egypt -> Misr
    - France -> Faransa
    - Russia -> Rusiya
    - Spain -> Espanya
    - Tunisia -> Tunis

    Now, the rules become much clearer when a country is identified by its full formal name. For example, "The Lebanese Republic" becomes "al-Jomhoriya al-Lubnaniya" with the "al" preceding both "Republic" and "Lebanese". However, "The Republic of Egypt" becomes "Jomhoriyat Misr", without the "Al" for either case; if one (incorrectly) refers to "The Egyptian Republic", it becomes "al-Jomhoriya al-Misriya", with the "al" restored.

  63. I know that this is a very old discussion, but I just came across it recently while searching for something else.

    A word on “The Argentine”. As other commentators have said, in Spanish it is correct to call it “La Argentina”. But the reason for that is because in Spanish it is an adjective (and I speak as someone who has lived in that country. The full name of the country is La República Argentina. It might have been called “El País Argentino” or “El Territorio Argentino”, in which case it might have been shoprtened to “El Argentino”, but of course wasn’t. It is for this reason that the word “Argentinian” is an unnecessary replacement for “Argentine” as an adjective in English.

    More interesting though is the Spanish name for Uruguay. Its formal name in Spanish is “La República Oriental del Uruguay”, which translates as “The Republic Oriental (or Eastern) of the Uruguay”. At first sight this seems strange. On a map of the world, Uruguay is nearly as far west as one can get, with only two countries of any size between it and the international date line. But “The Uruguay” refers to the river Uruguay which separates Argentina from Uruguay, so the full and formal name for the country might better translate as “The Republic Oriental to the River Uruguay”.

    Perhaps this model could be used by other countries. France as “The Republic Austral to the River Rhine” or the USA as “The Federal Republic Boreal to the Rio Grande”.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. But “The Uruguay” refers to the river Uruguay which separates Argentina from Uruguay,

      If this had been more widely known in the past, we'd now be calling the country The Uruguay — analogous to The Congo, The Gambia

      (a) that Wikipedia is to be believed and
      (b) that i have read the various articles correctly,
      the names of Argentina and Uruguay stem from regional names within larger Spanish political entries:

      The Viceroyalty of the River Plata under Spain included a region named by an Italian explorers with the Italian name Argentina. Beyond the rule of the Spanish Crown was a region with Spanish settlers known as known as Band Charrúa, Banda Otra ('the far bank)' and finally Banda Oriental.

      This name became important when the Portuguese seized this and neighbouring regions, forming them as the Province of Cisplatina 'this side of the River Plate'. So 'East Bank ' was for the Spanish-speakers a political term reminiscent of the Middle East's West Bank in today's political parlance. No need to specify which river it refers to.

      The Viceroyalty became independent and split into states which took their names from war heroes or — for Buenos Aires — form the Italian regional name of Argentina.

      What had become part of Cisplatina broke free from Brazil and avoided being absorbed by Argentina — thanks to British intervention. As an independent state it adopted its longer, more explicit formulation with Uruguay inserted— butwith out the notion of 'bank'.

  64. I didn't see mentioned: The Crimea ( "cliffs", I believe ).


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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)