Why does it sound OK to talk about the Jefferson Airplane but not the Led Zeppelin?
Several times on this podcast, we’ve talked about the word the. In episode 224, we said that usually the definite article doesn’t go with proper nouns. That’s why my friends and family call me Mignon, and not The Mignon. For some proper nouns, though, it’s not so clear. Why do we have The Velvet Underground, but not The Led Zeppelin? And are the reasons for shortening The Ukraine and The Congo to just Ukraine and Congo, the same reasons that some journalists are reporting on Central African Republic? Stay tuned, as we take a closer look at the word the, and how it behaves with bands, brands, and foreign lands.
A general rule about band names and the definite article is that plural band names that suggest that they refer to the individual band members tend to get a the. , It’s easiest to explain with an example. Let’s take the nominal phrase Exploding Pickle. Now suppose that Squiggly, Aardvark, and Fenster have formed a band and named it the Exploding Pickles. This name suggests that Squiggly is an Exploding Pickle, as are Aardvark and Fenster. Not literally, of course, but in a figurative way: We have to redefine the phrase Exploding Pickle so that it means “any member of the set made up of Squiggly, Aardvark, and Fenster.” The definite article emphasizes that these are the only Exploding Pickles.
Band names that don’t suggest they’re referring to the members of the band, don’t get carelessly prefaced with the so much.
This rule also explains why speakers tend to add the to some band names that don’t already have it, but not to others. Article-free bands such as Eagles and Talking Heads began to appear in the 1970s. But these bands, and later ones, such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, often end up with a the in front of their name anyway, because you imagine that each member of these bands is an Eagle, a Talking Head, or a Red Hot Chili Pepper. I’m not saying it’s cool to be careless with a band’s name by adding the definite article when they don’t want it; I am saying that if you’re confused, it’s their fault, not yours.
Likewise, plural-noun band names that don’t suggest they’re referring to the members of the band, don’t get carelessly prefaced with the so much. For example, some commenters on a Language Log post suggest that speakers rarely put a the before the names Barenaked Ladies and Dire Straits because these names don’t suggest that each band member is a bare-naked lady (they’re all men), or a dire strait (because the idiom dire straits doesn’t refer to actual straits).
What about those singular band names, though, like The Velvet Underground or Led Zeppelin? This was actually the question that got me started on this episode. When I was in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, I had coffee with Penn Jillette, who, in addition to being half of the incredible magician duo Penn and Teller, likes to talk about grammar. He wondered why a sentence like “I went to see the Jefferson Airplane” sounds OK, but “I like the Led Zeppelin” doesn’t, and other band names work with or without the definite article. When he said this, I was thinking, “the Jefferson Airplane”? I didn’t know until I did a Google search that people actually said this, or at least, they used to.
The bottom line is that fans are likely to think a band name should have the in the name if they view the name as describing the members rather than being collective.
Returning to our example, suppose that Squiggly, Aardvark, and Fenster have named their band The Exploding Pickle. This name suggests that the entire band is figuratively an exploding pickle, and that only one such pickle exists. I believe this is how some of the singular-noun bands that began to appear in the late 1960s were regarded, and that this is why you can find mentions of bands such as the Jefferson Airplane or the Buffalo Springfield in books, newspapers, and magazines of the time.
On the other hand, suppose that our three musicians have formed a band and named their band just Exploding Pickle. In this case, Exploding Pickle is just the name of the band, and that’s it. There’s no metaphor step in between. The fact that the name is a noun isn’t even relevant, since you could take any kind of phrase and use it as a name. For example, They Might Be Giants is a sentence, and Of Monsters and Men is a prepositional phrase, but they’re also both band names. This seems to be the more usual way to think of singular band names these days, and I suspect it’s why some of those singular-noun band names, such as Jefferson Airplane, that used to have a definite article have lost it now.
The bottom line is that fans are likely to think a band name should have the in the name if they view the name as describing the members rather than being collective. In other words, we probably don’t call it The Led Zeppelin because we simply think of Led Zeppelin as the name of the band, and don't think of it as describing the band, but we probably do call them The Eagles because we’d say “Don Henley is an Eagle.”
... Next, "The" in Brands and Foreign Lands