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Why use The instead of A? Perhaps the writers of The are pulling at our emotions.

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I thought high blood pressure was "the silent killer" because there are no typical symptoms. (I think this might be off-topic). –  Kristina Lopez Feb 12 '13 at 21:44
    
I'd say "Silent Killer" on it's own stands as sufficient evidence of an attempt to pull at emotions, no? It's not like its a logic-based statement. Logically it makes more sense to point out the noisy killers: "Pertussis, Tuberculosis, Firearms; The Noisy Killers". –  Jon Hanna Feb 13 '13 at 1:41
    
@Jon: In the biomed field, silent killers are asymptomatic diseases like hypertension & certain types of cancer that have no easily discernible signs & symptoms until they've progressed to stage III (advanced) or IV (terminal). In journalese, "silent killer" may be a heart-string harpist, but for medical types, it's a motivation to search for biochemical markers in blood, urine, & breath tests, e.g. Typically, the idiom isn't logical. –  user21497 Feb 13 '13 at 9:10
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closed as not constructive by tchrist, aedia λ, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者, simchona Feb 12 '13 at 22:22

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1 Answer

Calling something the silent killer does not necessarily mean it is the exclusive silent killer, simply that it is the one of central interest in a particular context. If I am borrowing someone's computer and ask "what is the password?" to log on, I am asking for a password that will work for me, regardless of the fact that there may be dozens of active accounts and thus dozens of working passwords on that computer.

Advocates creating a public service advertising campaign in order to raise the profile of a particular topic would always want to use the instead of a. Calling carbon monoxide, or hypertension, or chronic inflammation the silent killer suggests that it is, if not the only silent killer, perhaps the most important among them (at least until the next PSA comes on). A silent killer is just one of a bunch— and not necessarily the worst of the bunch.

Nor is the habit limited to health activists. Why, just in carbonated soft drink slogans alone, off the top of my head, I recall

  • The Real Thing
  • The Choice of a New Generation
  • The pause that refreshes
  • The Right One
  • The Uncola
  • Just what the doctor ordered

which all imply a uniqueness to the flavored sugar water contained in a can bearing certain logos, as opposed to that in cans with other logos.

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This is the excellent answer on how context can affect article selection. Nice! –  J.R. Feb 12 '13 at 22:49
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