Macbeth is the most unsettling of Shakespeare's plays, and not just because of the grim subject matter. As Clive Thompson writes, "there's something subconsciously off about the sound of the play, and it spooks people". A language study set out to find the most uncanny language in the play, expecting the dark magic to be in meter and prosody. But the magic word turned out to be "the". [via Metafilter]
They began to notice a pattern. Consider this example below; it's Lady Macbeth speaking. The Macbeths are getting all jittery and nervous, and they're startled by some noises in the night. Lady Macbeth explains the noises thusly …
It was the owl that shriek'd, the fatal bellman, Which gives the stern'st good-night.
Now, that's a weird way to talk about that owl. Imagine you and I were walking through the woods and we suddenly heard a hoot. I'd probably say, "oh — it's an owl!" An owl. Not the owl. If you say "the owl," you're referring to a specific owl that you, and everyone around, you is already familiar with.
By saying "it was the owl that shriek'd", Lady Macbeth is — in a quite deliciously creepy way — implying that everyone already knows what owl she's talking about.
One of the plainest words used constantly to suggest a mythic fatalism, a shared awareness that the world and everything in it is determinate and doomed.
On a lighter note,