The Linguistics of My Next Band Name.

Chi Luu has another interesting JSTOR Daily post which starts off from the always enjoyable topic of band names, real and fake:

“My next band name” has become a meme for a kind of tangential joyfulness in identifying the weird and wonderful phrasings in language… that can also double as your next band name. Consider such gems as “French Toast Emergency,” “The Thanksgiving Uncles,” “Librarians in Uproar,” or “Giraffe Aristocracy,” next band name submissions found on Reddit or the obligatory tumblr hosted by sci-fi author John Scalzi. Whether you like them as effective band names or not (some of them seem like they were actually generated by artificial intelligence), most people will get the joke—there’s something unusual, compelling or eye-catching about each of these expressions. They’re unexpected words to find together, they make you sit up and take notice.

There’s something else apart from this—a native speaker’s understanding of this subculture comes with a kind of social sixth sense about why phrases like these might make good band names. Compare the diverse mix of (real) band names like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Apples in Stereo, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Suburban Kids With Biblical Names, The The, and the almost unpronounceable !!! (Chk Chk Chk). The question is, with such a wide range of styles, how do we even know what makes a good band name?

She proceeds to an even more interesting related topic:

The answer to the question of why certain combinations of words make good band names, surprisingly, is related to the fact that people don’t really know what words mean, according to linguist Mark Aronoff. Rather, we connect words and names—even names that we may never have come across before—that exist in the same semantic space, absorbing their recurring patterns. It tells us a lot about how we might form new members of that class.

The Aronoff citation is “Automobile Semantics,” Linguistic Inquiry, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer, 1981), pp. 329-347, and it looks like you can read the whole thing from her link, even if you don’t regularly have JSTOR access. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Not surprising that we “don’t know what words mean.”

    That’s why it’s so discombobulating to be asked of an individual word “what does it mean?” and why lexicographers deserve their pay. Defining words in isolation is an unnatural activity which needs specialist skills and training. The commoner the word, the more unnatural and difficult.

  2. Writing in English or other of my non-native language, sometimes a word will pop up and then I’ll be immediately distrustful of it: wait, where did that come from? Why I am using it here? Can I use it here? What does it even mean, anyway?

  3. Oddly my next band is called “The Linguistics of My Next Band Name Dot Tumbler Dot Com”.

  4. Greg Pandatshang says

    Rather than say that people don’t know what words mean, I would say that connecting words and names that exist in the same semantic space, absorbing their recurring patterns, is what it means to know what a word means. Translating that knowledge of meaning into a statement of a definition reminds me of the act of translating a dream into a description that you could tell somebody else. It’s odd transition into a different type of knowledge.

    P.S. Ironically, I was going to name my next band Squiffy-Marie and the von Bladets, but now I’m going to try and see if I can register “The Linguistics of …” before xyr gets to the band registry office.

    P.P.S. I usually make this type of joke in the form of either “that should be the title of your autobiography!” or “that’s what it says on my business cards.”

  5. Ken Miner says

    Support for Aronoff: words, the referents of which are no longer extant or at least no longer prominent, are still used, apparently with understanding. If I say that some dapper over-dressed guy looks like a hood ornament,* I am more or less understood, even though there haven’t been hood ornaments on most cars for at least a few generations. And guys sing the old train songs who have never seen a train – well, maybe a commuter train. (Songs about manual work I won’t even mention…) There must be lots of further examples.

    * In case you find this too creative, in Scott Turow’s Pleading Guilty (hardback edition, p. 20), a guy says “… he looked mostly like a hood ornament.”

  6. We have harrowing experiences even if we don’t use harrows.

  7. Paul Cowan says

    Discussing some test results with my GP one day, I suggested to her that Occult Blood would totally be a name for a heavy metal band.

  8. I have a biologist friend who posts articles on FB, and from them I’ve gotten two excellent (not band names, but) album titles: “The Death Crawl of a Jurassic Crinoid” and “The Hidden Teeth of Sloths.”

  9. Those are both excellent titles, and I might actually listen to the second one.

  10. An example from Portuguese: In Brazil, 20th-century payphones and arcade games didn’t take coins, but tokens (probably due to inflation and frequent changes in currency). From this came a ficha caiu as our “the penny dropped”. Kids who haven’t ever seen a ficha-operated machine still use the expression.

    And of course there’s all that stuff about horses in English.

  11. Related to the second link: “batman” at LH.

  12. I only realized quite recently that ‘The Beatles’ is a pun. And once I realized that, I also realized that it was -not- a good name for a band.

  13. Just think, if they’d had a better name, they might have gotten somewhere!

  14. NoMoreEagleZ, something like the Beatles just a universe away.

  15. @languagehat: I always thought “The Quarrymen” sounded much cooler, actually.

    And for those who may not have gotten Squiffy-Marie’s reference, here it is:

  16. @MattF: I don’t get it. What’s the pun?

  17. It was an allusion to Buddy Holly’s group, the Crickets. WP records this sequence of names: Blackjacks > Quarrymen > Johnny and the Moondogs > Beatals > Silver Beetles > Silver Beatles > Beatles.

  18. As evidenced by this conversation between band members, “The The” is pronounced [ðə ðə]. (I’ve added that to the Wikipedia page.) That is a pretty syntactically/phonologically abnormal phrase for English– how do you get two unstressed “the”s in a row?

  19. Have you got a timestamp of when they say it?

  20. I first ran into this meme in Every Single Dave Barry Column I’ve Ever Read.

  21. OK. So being mostly out of it and being also of a killjoy disposition, I went to Wikipedia and took the names of 20 most successful bands judging by record selling. Here they are:
    Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Queen, Rolling Stones, ABBA, Eagles, U2, Aerosmith, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Chicago, Carpenters, Dire Straits, Def Leppard, Genesis, Beach Boys, The Who, Earth, Wind & Fire
    You don’t need a fancy name for your band, unless, of course, music is not the point.

  22. The label on an exhibit in a chateau in the Loire Valley reads Tallyrand’s Surgical Boot which I immediately thought was a potential band name.

  23. @D.O. You seem to assume record selling to be a measure of musical value. (That measure would rank Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill as doubly better music than The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s).

  24. David Marjanović says

    You seem to assume record selling to be a measure of musical value.

    1) No, why? The claim is that a “good” band name increases popularity, whether or not it correlates with musical value.
    2) What other objective measure of musical value do you propose…?

  25. Band names like Godspeed You! Black Emperor are instantly recognisable to one and all as forms suitable for graduates of Master Of Fine Art (Indie Rock) programmes. This class of band doesn’t expect to sell out stadiums or have gold records, although accidents can of course happen.

  26. @Lazar: it’s at 1:28. And just after that, Matt Johnson says why he chose the name of the band (which has always been primarily his own project, with a changing succession of collaborators):

    JOHNNY MARR: You were already starting to get into collaborations, and you didn’t gig. Am I right in thinking that The The was like an umbrella?
    MATT JOHNSON: A lot of it was to do with, probably, a certain amount of shyness, I didn’t really want to be known, I didn’t want my photograph used and I purposely distanced myself a lot by using the band name. And choosing that band name, because it was very anonymous, anyway, it was just slightly tongue-in-cheek.

  27. Bathrobe says

    It was an allusion to Buddy Holly’s group, the Crickets. WP records this sequence of names: Blackjacks > Quarrymen > Johnny and the Moondogs > Beatals > Silver Beetles > Silver Beatles > Beatles.

    Are you sure it isn’t just a pun on ‘beat’?

    The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, of course, came at the tail end of the era of plural band names, just before singular names became the fashion. Plural names sound so old-fashioned now…

    I always thought The Last Time by the Rolling Stones would sound great sung by a choir of nuns with British accents (with the guitar riff sung in the background).

    “You don’t try very hard to please me.
    With what you know it should be easy.”

  28. Of course it’s a pun on ‘beat’ as well.

  29. My next band will be called Tsskshftstt K’clhlhtsxw Slhxwtlhslhts. Sure, you can say it (lh = lateral fricative, c = velar fricative, x = uvular fricative).

  30. @Vasha: Oh wow, I didn’t even notice that – I parsed it as “there” with a slight disfluency. I was expecting something like [ðə ˈðɐ] or [ðə ˈðəː], but yeah, it does actually sound like an unstressed [ðǝ ðǝ].

  31. So many of these awful band names are more often suitable album titles — of which I would include all the examples in the opening paragraph.

  32. “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.”–Wallace Stevens, “The Man on the Dump”

  33. See Jello Biafra’s lovely and obnoxious monologue, Names for Bands.

  34. I particularly liked “The List Could Go On All Night,” they should do covers of old night club classics.

  35. Rodger C says

    This from the latest Scientific American: the Zombie Larva Defenders.

  36. marie-lucie says

    JC: We have harrowing experiences even if we don’t use harrows

    Some people do, when preparing fields.

    But I have never quite understood what Jesus was doing when he was “harrowing Hell”. What I learned in French catechism was that (at some point) Jesus went down into the Underworld, but not what he did there. I don’t think he liberated the sinners.

  37. I don’t think he liberated the sinners.

    Well, according to tradition if not the actual text of the Bible, he did indeed, at least those who hadn’t sinned badly enough to be damned to hell; as Wikipedia puts it, the Harrowing of Hell is “the triumphant descent of Christ into Hell […] between the time of his Crucifixion and his Resurrection when he brought salvation to all of the righteous who had died since the beginning of the world (excluding the damned).”

  38. Here you can see him bringing a bunch of people out, with old Adam at the forefront (and surly, resentful devils at the right).

  39. marie-lucie says

    Thanks LH! So Jesus did not liberate “sinners”, but good people who just happened to be born too early!

    What a harrow does is scrape the ground of a plowed field to even it, removing weeds and other non-soil stuff
    as it goes. So then the “harrowing” of Hell was the act of removing the good people who should not have been there?

  40. We are sinners all, even the saved!

  41. (I may be a lapsed Lutheran, but I remember that much theology.)

  42. I have never heard of the “harrowing” tradition of Jesus freeing the virtuous but unbaptized from Hell. In Dante, those people are still present in the first circle.

  43. Actually, in Canto IV, He does save the Hebrew patriarchs.

  44. Virgil (the character in Dante) says that there are two kinds of virtuous dwellers in Limbo: those who were born before Christ’s death and were not monotheistic (this group includes Virgil himself), and those who were born after Christ’s death but were unbaptized (including a number of Muslim philosophers as well as Saladin). It follows that it is the pre-Christian monotheists (mostly but not exclusively Jews) who were removed by the Harrowing. This may or may not be Dante’s own view, and it is something the Church abstains from dogmatizing about.

  45. When the Church abstains from dogmatizing, you know it’s a problematic issue.

  46. David Marjanović says

    JC: We have harrowing experiences even if we don’t use harrows

    As the cited Pffft article says, “[t]he word “harrow” comes from the Old English hergian meaning to harry or despoil”. I wonder if that’s cognate with German verheeren “devastate”, from Heer “army”, referring to a bunch of merry berserks massacring everything that moves and burning to the ground everything that doesn’t.

  47. I wonder if that’s cognate with German verheeren “devastate”
    Etymonline says it is (s.v. harry).

  48. Hm. ODS (Ordbog over det danske Sprog) has hærge v from ON herja connected with hær = G Heer — and harve sb & v from ON herfi related to L carpere and E harp, root meaning “pluck,” with the agricultural sense of E harrow possibly borrowed from ON.

    I always thought the Harrowing of Hell was in the first sense, vaguely imaging Christ descending in divine wrath to scourge the devils or something, but plucking out the unbaptized but just makes sense.

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