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The Debunker: Did Ye Olde British People Really Say "Ye Olde"?

by Ken Jennings

If you're an anglophile, a lover of all things British, then this time of year must be like Christmas for you. Well, it's real Christmastime as well, but you know what I mean, right? If you have a soft spot for Dickensian carolers, candlelit mince pies, snow-covered country villages, special episodes of inexplicably popular TV shows like Downton Abbey and Doctor Who... well, in December, we all become a tiny bit British, don't we? But not everything we think we know about life across the pond is strictly "pukka." We've enlisted Sir Kenneth Jennings, VC, GBE, DJO (Distinguished Jeopardy! Order) to help us "mind the gap" between fact and fiction when it comes to Merrie Old England.

The Debunker: Did Ye Olde British People Really Say "Ye Olde"?

Does anything convey an air of enforced jollity better than the phrase "Ye Olde" appended to a pub, renaissance fair, candle shoppe, ice cream shoppe--hell, any kind of "shoppe"? The word "ye" is all over the Bible and Shakespeare and Thor comics, so surely this old-timey language must have some historical cred, right?


In fact, the use of "Ye Olde" on businesses only dates back to the early 20th century. And the word "ye" has never meant "the" in any era of British history. In Old English, "ye" was the plural form of "you," the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of "y'all." ("Abandon hope, all y'all who enter here," as Dante once wrote.) Later it came to be used for formal singular address as well: "thou" for a pal, but "ye" for one's liege lord.

But here's the source of the confusion: in Middle English, the letters "th" were often written as a single letter: รพ, called a thorn. When early printers didn't have access to that character, they would use the next best thing, a 'y'. (Why not a 'p'? Your guess is as good as mine. But if they had used a 'p', our modern word for "thorn" would be "porn" so maybe it's a good thing.) "Ye" was eventually revived as a Tudor-looking rendering of "The"...but even if "Ye Olde" stuff had actually existed back then, it would never have been pronounced "Ye." Just "the," same as now. Make sure to tell the teens working your local food court "Pretzel Shoppe" that they are saying it wrong.

Quick Quiz: What national language, spoken by less than 350,000 people, is the only language that still uses the thorn today?

Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.