A reader wonders about the phrase “the Argentine”:
I often come across the phase “the Argentine” in older books. People are said to “go out to the Argentine” for vacation or business. Mostly, these books are by British authors. I can’t find any information about why Argentina was once called “the Argentine”—what does “Argentine” mean that it would need the definite article?
The official name of the country we call Argentina is República or Confederación Argentina. The country is named for the Rio de la Plata. Plata is the Spanish word for silver. In naming the country, the Latin word for silver, argentum, was chosen instead of the Spanish equivalent.
The usual rule in English limits the article to countries whose names are plural or include such words as kingdom and republic. For example:
the Central African Republic
the Czech Republic
the Dominican Republic
the United Arab Emirates
the United Kingdom
the United States
An exception to this rule is the country of Gambia. In 1964, the prime minister’s office issued a directive that the country was to be called “The Gambia” (with a capital T). The reason given was to avoid confusion with newly independent Zambia.
Another reader, a US resident but a native of Ukraine, mentions her annoyance at such exchanges as this one:
New Acquaintance: Where are you from?
New Resident: Ukraine.
New Acquaintance: Oh, the Ukraine.
She doesn’t understand why people insist on prefacing Ukraine with an article.
Quoted in a BBC article, Oksana Kyzyma of the Embassy of Ukraine in London asserts that Ukraine is both the conventional short and long name of the country.
The region was called “the Ukraine” in English when it was part of the USSR. Then its official name was “the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.” Now, although parts of the country are reported to be held by Russian forces, Ukraine continues to be known internationally as Ukraine, without an article.
Note: Another good reason to leave off the article with Ukraine is the fact that neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian language has a definite article.
Of course, many speakers are not going to observe the conventions. One possible explanation for the fact that some countries acquire an unofficial the is that the country name is closely associated with a geographical feature.
In English, the names of geographical features such as mountain ranges, island groups, rivers, seas, oceans, and canals are prefaced with the definite article. For example:
the Indian Ocean
the Suez Canal
Perhaps speakers who say “the Argentine” associate the country with the river for which it is named.