September 05, 2006

The the in The Ohio State University

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.

(In an entertaining side development, a number of Ohio state universities have followed Ohio State down the definite-article route, complete with capitalization: The University of Toledo (otherwise UT) and The University of Akron (otherwise UA), for instance.)

Compare Ohio State to Oklahoma State and Oregon State.  Ohio State's logo says "The Ohio State University"; Oklahoma State's has just "Oklahoma State University"; Oregon State's webpage is headed "Oregon State University  OSU".  Well, Oklahoma State is a system, though if you refer just to "Oklahoma State University", you'll usually be taken to be referring to the institution in Stillwater (whereas "California State University" picks out no physically located institution at all).  Oregon State is not a system, so it's just as unique as Ohio State, but those folks in Corvallis are happy without the definite article.  (Omit Needless Words!)

In its on-line materials, Oregon State uses "OSU" pretty consistently.  Oklahoma State uses "Oklahoma State University" and "OSU".  Ohio State largely avoids the definite-article issue by using "Ohio State" most of the time, "OSU" occasionally, and never "The Ohio State" (which would be ill-formed) or "The OSU" (which would be a strange mixture of the abbreviated and the expanded).  But on first reference, the full form is often used, as in a recent press release (8/18/06), which begins (the bolding is mine):

COLUMBUS - According to the U.S. News & World Report 2007 edition of America's Best Colleges released today, The Ohio State University has been named 19th among the nation's top 50 public universities, up from 21st in 2005, 22nd in 2004 and 2003, and 24th in 2002.

The article then continues with "Ohio State" everywhere, until the final paragraph, where the writer slips into ordinary, rather than official, usage:

Founded in 1870, Ohio State University is a world-class public research university and the leading comprehensive teaching and research institution in the state of Ohio.

It's just SO hard to stick to "rules" that don't make sense to you.

An alternative hypothesis about Ohio State's insistence on the definite article comes from Nick Piesco (who also describes my university naming postings as "just the kind of esoteric geekitude that makes the Internet grand" -- which was meant as a compliment and was so taken).  Piesco alludes to an OU-OSU tiff about the use of the name "Ohio" (and nothing more).  From a 1997 Cincinnati Post article:

It began in 1993 when Ohio University went to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and secured a registered trademark for the word ''Ohio'' on licensed athletic gear and in connection with athletic events. In 1995 it filed a separate trademark application for a new ''attack cat'' logo [a snarling bobcat].

More than vanity is at stake: OU clears about $110,000 a year from licensed sporting apparel.

The trouble began when OU's legal counsel telephoned his counterpart at Ohio State University - excuse us, the Ohio State University (you guessed it - another trademark) - and suggested, among other things, that OSU get the ''Ohio'' name off the cheerleaders' uniforms.

The OSU lawyer thought the OU lawyer was joking. But he wasn't.

Ohio University, with an absolutely straight face, claims that Ohio State University can't use the word ''Ohio'' commercially.

''Ohio State'' is all right, it seems. But ''Ohio,'' appearing alone on, say, a red and white OSU sweatshirt, might not be all right.

OU (which prefers to be called ''Ohio'' on second reference) says it has no problem with OSU calling its football stadium ''Ohio Stadium,'' and swears it's willing to let the OSU marching band continue its hallowed ''Script Ohio'' routine at halftime.

(Note OU's preference for being called "Ohio" on second reference.  OU's website is packed with references to the university as "Ohio" (as well as "OU").  In my "University Name Bulletins" posting, I got this just wrong.  My apologies to my colleagues in Athens.)

What surfaces here is another fact about Ohio State: it's proud of its status as the premier public institution of higher education in the state of Ohio; it's inclined to see itself as representing the state -- another reason for cherishing the definite article.  And so it's inclined to think that "Ohio" belongs to Ohio State, as in "Ohio Stadium" and "Script Ohio".

I don't know how this dispute got resolved, but at the moment neither institution seems comfortable with t-shirts that say just "Ohio".  The closest the OSU Bookstore gets is an "Ohio Stadium" t-shirt and one that has only a plain "O" ("the OSU Block O").  The OU Bookstore offers exactly one t-shirt that has "Ohio" on it without some further identifying material (like the bobcat logo, the word "Bobcats", or the Mid-American Conference seal): one with "Ohio" plus the Adidas logo, which of course doesn't pick out any particular institution.  They're not exactly flaunting "Ohio".

In any case, OSU's commitment to the definite article long antedates this legal spat of the '90s, though that commitment might have been helped along by the OU-OSU rivalry.

(An irrelevant side observation.  Looking at these university websites, from all over the world, I am startled by the number of institutions that propose to attain "world-class" status, or some similarly described goal, by <insert year here>.   There's a lot of striving and boasting out there.  But whatever you do, don't read the "Mission Statement" of a university, unless you're really interested in contentless administrativese.)

[One item from the e-mail avalanche: EJ Pryor writes to say that The Evergreen State College (in Olympia, Wash.) almost always has the definite article included, and capitalized. Pryor says: "The abbreviated name is Evergreen (never Evergreen State), and the accepted acronym is TESC (never ESC).  As a student I was told that the reason for the "the" was that the name should be analyzed not as 'The <Evergreen><State College>' but rather '<The Evergreen State><College>'."   That actually makes some sense.  Back on the Ohio State front, several correspondents have reported the web abbreviation "tOSU" -- note lower-case "t".]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 5, 2006 12:37 PM