Why do we use definite articles for some place names, like The Hague?

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Oct. 27 2009 6:09 PM

Why Is It Called The Hague?

And why is it in the Netherlands?

The Hague. Click image to expand.
International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands

Former Bosnian leader and accused war criminal Radovan Karadzic did not appear for the start of his trial on Monday in the Dutch city of The Hague. Why do we call it The Hague, rather than just Hague?

Blame the locals. Those who live in The Hague never stopped using an old-fashioned name that described the place according to its medieval use. We get the official name Den Haag from Des Graven Hage, which means "the counts' hedge" and refers to the fact that Dutch noblemen once used the land for hunting. Many other place names started off as descriptions with definite articles. For example, the city of Bath, England, famous for its purportedly health-supporting natural spring, was referred to as "The Bath" until the 19th century. The town of Devizes, about 20 miles east of Bath, used to be called "The Devizes," because it once divided the estates of two large landowners. In these cases, the definite articles dropped off when the locals started thinking of their town's name as more than a mere descriptor. But people in The Hague have stuck with the original phrase—even to the point of using the longer "Counts' Hedge" title from time to time.

Not all place names using the come from these sorts of phrases. Place names that indicate plurality—usually referring to a collection of islands, mountains, or other geographic features—also tend to take the definite article. The Netherlands (the "low countries") and the Bahamas (referring to the collection of islands) are well-known examples. The city of The Dalles, Ore.—familiar as the last stop on the Oregon Trail to anyone who played the eponymous computer game—is named for rock formations along the Columbia River. And a town in Virginia goes by the name The Plains, while the city of White Plains in upstate New York seems to have lost the definite article very early on.

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In rare cases, a singular place name based on local geography may take a definite article. The West African nation of The Gambia is named for the river that runs through its northern regions. The Bronx takes its name from the Bronx River, which was itself named for a settler named Jonas Bronck. (It was his river, i.e., Bronck's.)

Place names change over time, but in general the movement is away from the use of the definite article. Until approximately 50 years ago, Ukraine, whose name is derived from the Proto-Slavic term for a borderland, was almost always referred to as "The Ukraine." Now, according to the Ukrainian government—and a federal judge who presided over a case in which the U.S. government and a Ukrainian deportee couldn't even agree on how to refer to the country—the proper name is simply Ukraine. (Dick Cheney, however, begs to differ.)

The Bronx is another interesting case. In 1914, 16 years after the borough was named, New York state decided to make the area into a separate county. Unsure as to why the definite article was ever included in the first place, the legislature went with Bronx County.

While many newcomers to the English language are mystified by the seeming arbitrariness of this system, other languages do no better. Most Spanish and French grammar books cite a general rule that definite articles do not precede freestanding place names, but exceptions abound. El Cairo and la India almost always take the definite article in Spanish, while la Argentina and la China often do. The French city of Le Havre—literally "the harbor"—suggests that francophones use the definite article with names derived from geographic features, but that doesn't explain why the former Ivory Coast is now called Cote d'Ivoire rather than La Cote d'Ivoire.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Alberto Pastor of Southern Methodist University, Lloyd Ultan, author of The Northern Borough: A History of the Bronx, and Barbara Vance of Indiana University.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.