A New Symbol for a New Age: ‘The’ Gets Shrunk to ‘Ћ’

More sketches by Mathis

When communicating 140 characters at a time, you must constantly be on the prowl to lose verbal baggage by drop a letter or word here and there. To do this, we’ve invented an entirely new kind of lexicon. Lol-ing, wtf-ing, smh-ing, and yolo-ing our roflcopters has taken control of the way we talk. Our abbreviations transcend the phrases they originally reference and become symbols themselves. Paul Mathis, a 52-year-old Australian restaurant magnate, decided to take on the most common word in the English language “the” and create his own symbol without using “t” “h” or “e.”

Language usually evolves organically:

  • A group of people start to use a new word such as “omg.”
  • The usage becomes more prevalent and spreads into groups tangent to the original creators.
  • Usage becomes ubiquitous and you see everyone typing omg in their messages.
  • Suddenly omg doesn’t just mean “oh my god,” the three letters become a symbol that conveys shock, awe, and incredulity all by itself.
  • Later on, bearded men white men smoking pipes (I imagine) sigh and begrudingly agree to add “omg” to the dictionary.

This is the descriptive path to word-dom—the dictionary writers describe the world as they see it. If it looks like “omg” is being used as a word, then it becomes a word.

But what if someone wanted to fast track a symbol into common parlance? What if someone wanted to prescribe a change instead of waiting for it to happen? This is Ћ challenge Mathis undertook.

Paul Mathis was once known as the Midas of the restaurant scene in Melbourne, Australia. He’s worked on the development of 32 different restaurants, cafes, and bars; he created his own architectural practice; and in 1999 received an international patent on a chair he invented. His background as a massively successful businessman makes Mathis appear an unlikely person to spearhead a typographic initiative. But sometimes when an idea gets in your head, it can’t get out.

“I thought long and hard about where I wanted to take this idea, I had 2 options: 1 forget about it; 2. Do something about it,” Mathis told me. For a man who has worked on so many projects, many ideas likely filter down to binary options. “In today’s hurried world of speed texting, lol-ing, and tweeting why not symbolize [the] with an easily recognizable image and go ahead and use it in text that doesn’t require formality, such as SMS or twitter.”

Paul Mathis's original sketches

Original designs and drawings of Ћ

Mathis likes to justify his project by looking at the ampersand (&). “And” is only the fifth most commonly used word yet receives its own symbol. But as Mathis notes, “‘The’ is the most used word occupying around 4 percent of the top 100 words used.” This thinking makes sense: if number five gets a one character replacement, why shouldn’t number one? “I figured that ‘The’ should be afforded a symbol and saw no logical reason why I couldn’t work on a modern version.”

On the side, Mathis began to research and design a way to represent “the” in a single character. He looked back to the Old Engligh thorn letter (þ) and its variant þe, which was used to represent “the” during the middle ages. While it seemed a good starting point, the thorn wasn’t the answer for Mathis. “Even in ye olde days these symbols were difficult to interpret and eventually were lost in translation,” he told me. “[It doesn't] look like ‘The.’ In a text or tweet or indeed an email an ancient squiggle would struggle to achieve recognition.”

On napkins, receipts, and other spare pieces of paper, Mathis continuously designed and iterated new symbols. “I was originally so averse to the idea of squashing a ‘T’ and ‘h’ together as this was so obvious it bordered on cliche,” Mathis said. But he softened to the idea of T-h fusion, and the idea morphed into the final version. Despite many hours of design work and hundreds of alterations, “when it’s all said and done Ћ looks like ‘The.’”

Paul Mathis with his symbol

The initiative hasn’t been without its critics though. The Age, an Australian magazine, originally reported that Mathis sunk around $75,000 Australian dollars into the project (around $68,000 US). But talking with Mathis revealed the number was closer to $36,000 AUD over a two year period.

In order for Ћ to take off, Mathis needed to do more than just design the symbol and share it with his friends. Instead, Mathis decided the best way to get people to use it was to put it on their phone’s keyboard, making it always one tap away. Mathis developed four custom keyboards for Android phones that can easily be downloaded and has already developed two iOS versions which have yet to be released. This is where the expenses started to add up. The development of all six apps cost Mathis around $18,000 AUD. But this is his money and his mission. Who cares what he spent? He isn’t charging a penny to use it. “This is not going to make me wealthy,” Mathis said. “I’m only hoping that I may someday recoup some of my cost.”

Though Mathis doesn’t plan to invest much further into the idea, he isn’t completely done with developing Ћ. The symbol on the page, Ћ, isn’t actually the one Mathis designed. It’s the Cyrillic letter “Tshe,” which happens to be a close approximation of the symbol Mathis developed. Tshe is part of unicode, an international encoding system that assigns a value to each possible character so computers can reproduce them. By using Ћ (Unicode: U+040B), anyone with a computer can immediately incorporate Mathis’s idea into practice. “Ћ is a Cyrillic character which happens to have a strong enough resemblance that allows me to freely use it as a T and h derivative,” says Mathis. “But I am planning to unicode Ћ symbol into a more elegant design.” Doing so would allow his unique symbol to be accessible on all devices.

Despite the ampersand’s long history, the symbol is not used as a replacement every instance of the word “and.” It likely never will be. But maybe 200 years out, Ћ will be as common and useful as & is today. Whether or not the world accepts it, Paul Mathis has given us the possibility to forego two letters and use Ћ instead.

You can follow updates about Ћ on its website.

If you have an Android device, you can download Mathis’s free keyboard and use Ћ to your heart’s content.

And if you’re on an iOS device, you can use a workaround to incorporate Ћ into your everyday usage

  • Copy Ћ
  • Go to > Settings > General > Keyboard > Add New Shortcut
  • In Phrase Bar paste Ћ
  • In Shortcut type th
  • Save
  • Whenever you type “th” it will autocorrect to Ћ

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