A friend of mine has a list written down somewhere of all the things we might name our future band someday, if either of us had enough musical talent to actually form a band. The current front-runner is Untold Tangles, a strange little phrase one of us read once in a strange little essay about the joys of hair-brushing. Which, I think, is probably the only context in which that particular combination of words would make any sense.
Linguist Chi Luu, I have to admit, has a better one: In a recent column in JSTOR Daily, Luu called dibs on Sea of Dudes, a name she culled from the headline of this Bloomberg piece. It is, objectively, an excellent choice (plus, think of the album-cover potential). And in her column, Luu attempted to work out why that is — what certain combinations of words, things as disparate as “sea of dudes” and “untold tangles,” have in common.
Saying that a certain snippet of text would make a good band name, Luu wrote, “has become a meme for a kind of tangential joyfulness in identifying the weird and wonderful phrasings in language.” But within all that weird and wonderful, is there any kind of linguistic pattern that separates the future musical acts from the random phrases?
The short answer: sort of. “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),” Luu explained. “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.”
But beyond novelty, a good name also has a certain culturally circumscribed je ne sais quoi. “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,” she wrote. It’s the same sort of sixth sense, she explained, that clues you in to names in other contexts — why you hear Fido, for example, and think dog, not human. Or why Rockville sounds like the name of a town, not the name of a sandwich.
Which brings us to the longer answer: The rules about what make a good band name aren’t only linguistic. They’re cultural, and as Luu pointed out, they’re constantly changing:
Short names beginning with “The” and a common noun is an obvious pattern from the mid-twentieth century (“The Beatles,” “The Monkees,” “The Animals,” “The Kinks”) that’s seen a revival in recent times. [Linguist Adrienne] Lehrer focuses on the heavy metal genre as one of the classes with more obvious linguistic patterns … usually involving death (as I said, onomastics is terribly exciting, if not downright injurious to your health). Death (Megadeth, Slayer) of course, and other perils, such as dangerous animals (King Cobra, White Snake), weapons (Guns N’ Roses, Iron Maiden), drugs and unhealthy substances (Poison), and, er, religion (Black Sabbath, Leviticus).
More than anything else, then, onomastics (a fancy word for “naming”) as it applies to musical acts is about context. The classifications Luu identified came from a 1992 essay by Adrienne Lehrer, a linguistics professor at the University of Arizona, that explored how we name everything from bands to streets to cars. Lehrer argued that we understand a given phrase as belonging to a certain category not because of anything inherent in the words themselves, but because of how they relate to other known members of that category.
“Just as a competent speaker of a natural language is expected to know the vocabulary, so he is expected to know the common names,” Lehrer argued. “Someone who did not recognize John and Mary as personal names or London and New York as place names could hardly be considered completely competent in English.”
The best way to come up with a recognizable band name, in other words, is to pick something that’s not too far off from what everyone else is doing. How very rock and roll.