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9 Jan 11 | Re: How far you can dictate what you are called

I think Eurythmics were the first group to say to people: “There’s no ‘the’ in our band name”. That was in the 80s. Nowadays, there are other bands who insist on not having a definite article. The Editors are the one that springs to mind, but there are certainly others. What do we all think about that, eh?

These current bands, I’m afraid, are wrong. There is a good reason why Eurythmics doesn’t take the definite article: the word is a neologism derived from Greek, whose meaning is clearly akin to ‘the study of making good music’. It’s a word like physics or genetics, so just as no one talks about ‘the physics’ or ‘the genetics’ (at least when referring to the field as a whole), it’s gramatically incorrect to talk about ‘*the Eurythmics’. In other words, this insistence on not using the definite article is a rare example of Dave Stewart not being insufferably pretentious - for once, he has a point.

Where, then, does this leave “Editors”? They have made several mistakes, even aside from their dreary, inessential music. First: they thought that the thing about Eurythmics worth copying was their pompous posturing, not, say, their meticulous production, formal innovation or talent. Second: the example of pompous posturing they chose to copy wasn’t even actual pompous posturing (and since it’s Eurythmics we’re talking about, this is comparable to picking the one coffee one out of a giant box of coconut Revels). And thirdly: they presume that they even have a say in whether they take the definite article or not.

I think there’s a good case to be made that these groups don’t actually have the right to make us leave the article out. My name’s James, right, and in English (unlike say Catalan) names don’t take articles, so I can’t go around calling myself ‘the James’. I don’t have the right to rewrite the rules of the language I’m speaking. If I try to, I am wrong. And I think it works the other way around. You can decide, as a band, that you are collectively going to be known as Editors, but if someone else does you the honour of putting you in a sentence then it’s up to them to know how to speak English. If they do, they will add a ‘the’. Trying to stop them is claiming a right that you simply don’t have.

As an adjunct to this, it’s worth noting that there are other bands with plural names that I don’t find myself wanting to give the article to. Gorillaz are one, and Foals are another. I think it must be to do with what kind of band they are - Gorillaz is a multimedia project, and Foals is some unknown number of bedroom sound-makers, whereas the Editors are quite clearly a normal rock band like the Beatles or the Radioheads. Therefore I find myself intuitively treating them one way and Gorillaz another. But the point still stands: it’s up to the person constructing the sentence to decide whether the article is needed, not the band themselves.

(I suppose you could look further into this and come up with some formal rules, but I’m happy just to intuit it. I always thought that linguistics was the kind of subject that is interesting in tiny fact-sized morsels, but that would become a bit of a bore if studied at length. With apologies to linguistics people of course: I’m only saying it’s not for me, not that it shouldn’t interest you.)

Posted by JOE FISH at 21:56

PS For what it’s worth, I feel the same way about spellings of names. Some parents seem to think that their children’s identity as a free-thinking individual hinges on their being given a name with an individualistic spelling. (1) By the very act of doing so, they are slavishly following a fashion themselves. (2) Until a couple of hundred years ago, names and spellings weren’t allocated together like they are now. You had your name, which existed orally, and when someone needed to write it down they spelt it however they thought best. When you went abroad, you’d even translate your name from John to Jean to Giovanni and back again. If you wrote something in Latin, Richard would become Ricardus. If you were Felipe II of Spain, you expected Brits to call you Philip (and the Spanish still call our queen Isabella). In short, you had no claim to ownership of your name’s spelling. I don’t see why that should have changed.

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