THE shirts

… for THE Ohio State University. A posting inspired by this Facebook posting by Scott Schwenter (who is, among other things, Professor of Hispanic Linguistics at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio), on 9/16:

(#1) SS — with Tammy Anderson, to whom he is married — before an Ohio State football game they were going to

SS is wearing a scarlet THE shirt for the occasion, TA a scarlet and gray shirt of her own, scarlet and gray being the school colors. For what is about to come, you also need to know that the school mascot is the buckeye, the nut of the Ohio buckeye tree Aesculus glabra, and that school teams are known as the Buckeyes; Ohio State fans like TA and SS are also known as Buckeyes, as indeed are natives of the state of Ohio. (I am not making any of this up.)

Note: this is massively a Mary, Queen of Scots, Not Dead Yet posting, indeed something of a celebration of my being able to post anything at all, not to mention through enormous pain in my swollen fingers. But no details about any of that here; at the moment, I truly am pleased to be still alive and want to show that I can manage a posting.

Then an exchange on Facebook between SS and me:

— AZ: Where did you get the shirt, Scott? The only THE shirt I could find on-line is too scarlet-and-gray for my taste (which [I said gently] doesn’t tend towards enthusiastic Buckeyeism).

— SS: Arnold Zwicky I’m pretty sure I got it at Walmart! Right by my house (Bethel and Sawmill).

That Walmart is in Columbus OH. The shirt doesn’t seem to be generally available; presumably, it was created specifically for an Ohio State clientele.

But why? you ask (unless you’re somehow connected to Ohio State, in which case it will all seem obvious to you). Why just the English definite article? Why should that evoke Ohio State?

Because for about 40 years Ohio State has had what can only be seen as a fervid (and not entirely rational) love affair with this word, because of the semantics of uniqueness associated with it. Increasingly, the university has become insistent on being identified as THE Ohio State University, not plain old anarthrous Ohio State University. At this point, a scarlet — or really, any intense red — display of the word will be taken as an allusion to the university. As in SS’s shirt above.

As other Facebook posters noted, the effect seems to work even with translations into German, as in pedagogical displays of the forms of the German definite article, so long as they’re on a red background. Hence, the definite-article t-shirt that I eventually bought as my (linguist’s) Ohio State shirt:

(#2) From the Spreadshirt company, a men’s sport t-shirt, designed by Samin Bin Humayun, in red, showing the forms of the definite article in German

The company offers this pedagogical display in turquoise, white, black, red, royal blue, and navy; in various sizes; and in several styles of shirt. But the red version cries out OHIO STATE auf deutsch.

Ohio State’s passionate arthrousness. A long story. Two items here: my 9/5/06 posting on Language Log, “The the in The Ohio State University“; and a 6/23/22 piece on the CNN website, “Ohio State University wins trademark for the word ‘THE’”, by Amy Simonson.

From Language Log back in 2006:

Readers continue to wonder about the the in The Ohio State University: what’s up with that?  I can give the explanation that was given to me many years ago, but not everybody will find it entirely satisfying.

What I was told was that this usage stresses the fact that there is only ONE Ohio State University; there are many California State Universities, but only one Ohio State University.  Granted, there are a number of Ohio state universities (Ohio University, Kent State University, The University of Toledo, and so on), but there’s only one institution named “Ohio State University”.  “California State University”, in contrast, is the name of a system of institutions, each of which has “California State University” as part of its name.

What makes this argument really subtle is that Ohio State has a number of branch campuses: Lima, Mansfield, Marion, and Newark, plus an agricultural institute and two research centers not in Columbus.  These, however, are not treated as separate institutions (as the UC and CSU campuses are, and as the constituent institutions of the University of London are); they are just geographically dispersed pieces of Ohio State.  So there’s just one Ohio State University, hence the definite article.

From CNN in 2022:

Ohio State University has officially registered a trademark for the word “THE” after a nearly three-year battle to clinch legal branding access to a word that’s deeply meaningful to the school’s overall identity.

The university in Columbus will use the word “THE” for branded products associated with the school and sold through its athletics and collegiate channels, OSU spokesperson Ben Johnson said Wednesday in a statement to CNN.

“THE has been a rallying cry in the Ohio State community for many years, and Buckeye fans who purchase official Ohio State gear support student scholarships, libraries and other university initiatives,” Johnson said.

… The university started using “the” with its name in 1986 when the institution introduced a new logo in the hopes of moving away from the “OSU” symbol, according to the school. The move was intended in part to distinguish it from two other schools with the same initials – Oregon State University and Oklahoma State University.

The trend of emphasizing the word “the” took off in the mid-1990s, when the school wanted football players to use it while introducing themselves. It grew into a meme when NFL broadcasts featured clips of players saying their names and their alma maters. OSU alums emphasized they were from “THE Ohio State University.” That OSU player intro was even parodied by “Saturday Night Live.”

Yes, it got bound up with the university’s identity, and was then (humorlessly) fetishized to the point where it attracted open mockery.

12 Responses to “THE shirts”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    In New Jersey they are not so adamant. Judging by their website, the state university there is willing to refer to itself as “Rutgers University”, though it’s actual name is “Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey”. There are probably other examples, some of which might violate TOSU’s trademark if insisted upon.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I’ve written quite a lot, mostly a long time ago on Language Log, about arthrousness in university names. This material is catalogued and described in the Page on my blog about my arthrousness postings:

      • J B Levin Says:

        Thank you for the reference. As usually happens, I managed to kill another half-hour down the rabbit hole it led to; even just skimming it is fascinating. This happens to me almost every time I look at one of your topic pages, and I’m not even close to a linguist.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        To Joel Levin: it pleases me no end that at least a few people are finding my Pages entertaining or illuminating.

        The Pages take an enormous time to prepare — typically, about an hour of extra labor after I manage to get a posting out, for each posting, but for quite some time now I’ve been so sick that just getting a posting done is a triumph, so this extra work hasn’t gotten done, and the Pages are badly out of date. I keep hoping that there will come a sunny period of better health when I can catch up, but I fear that I’ll die first.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    “California State University”, in contrast, is the name of a system of institutions, each of which has “California State University” as part of its name.

    This surprises me somewhat, as I’m used to hearing/seeing them called “University of California at $PLACE”. Or are these two different institutions?

    P.S. I love the German articles shirt.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Two different institutions. Simplifying matters considerably…

      The University of California, which includes UC Berkeley and UCLA (and UCSB and UCSC and UCSD and more), is the elite university system. The Cal State system, with still more campuses (some in the same cities as UC campuses — e.g. Cal State San Diego alongside UCSD), is the second-tier system. (There are (at least) two more tiers below that.)

      The U of C branches are highly selective in admissions, Cal State less so; and the U of C branches are explicitly research universities, with substantial graduate schools (not that sponsored research and the granting of doctorates doesn’t happen at Cal State campuses; but their primary orientation is to education).

  3. Stewart Kramer Says:

    CSU is further complicated by decades of renaming (Normal School, Teacher’s College, State College, State University), and many name exceptions (San Jose State Univ, SFSU, 3 Cal Poly campuses, etc.), but it serves a state with more than 1/9 of the US population (39.2M vs 331.9M in 2021). It’s a large and complicated group of organizations to keep track of, even in the national news. UC Davis pepper-sprayed some peaceful protesters in 2011. SJSU, the premier CSU campus, hushed up a decade of sexual female athletes, 2009-2020.

  4. Stewart Kramer Says:

    “Arthrous” popped into my head, like a morning word, and I suddenly realized that arthropods have jointed limb, like an articulated bus, and I’d never made the connection to “article” as a part of speech. (The etymology says articles hold the sentence together, and that inarticulate speakers don’t convey their ideas as an orderly series of distinct ideas.)

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