Exploring language via band names. This week – T. Rex.
Between 1967 and 1969, Marc Bolan led a psychedelic folk group called Tyrannosaurus Rex, which didn’t do very well. In 1970 Bolan moved to an electric sound, and modified the band’s name slightly. T. Rex went on to become one of the most influential forces in 1970s rock.
T. Rex was a better name than Tyrannosaurus Rex. Let’s have a think about why that should be. T. Rex is an abbreviation, where letters are missed at the end of a word. Abbreviations can also take the form of contractions, omitting letters from the middle of a word, as in Mr; or an acronym, where different words are formed into a single set of letters, as in USA. All these reductions of language have the same sort of effect. They concentrate long, complex ideas into something short and pithy; or bring diverse things together into one whole. They also tend to create a sense of excluding outsiders – taking the form of a simple code, there’s a suggestion of secrecy, belonging, exclusivity and power. It’s no surprise that many countries have been identified by abbreviations – USA, UAE, USSR, GDR, UK, DPRK. It’s also no surprise that abbreviations are popular with the military, in management speak and in the titles of academia. Ironically, there can also be an informality associated with shortened language, as any experienced Twitter user would know. But the basic rule of differentiating a group still applies. The most casual of Twitterspeak serves the same purpose as the most clipped of military acronyms.
Bands that use abbreviations in their names tap into all of this. There are many examples – AC/DC, R.E.M., ABBA, REO Speedwagon, Booker T and the M.G’s, Guns N’ Roses, INXS, CSNY, OMD, ELO, 10cc, U2, JLS, AWOLNATION. The power of the abbreviation effect is illustrated by the fact that removing one letter can make all the difference. Led Zeppelin dropped a single a. The Lovin’ Spoonful dropped a single g.
The AC/DC logo designed in 1977 by Gerard Huerta (Image attribution)
Such is the attraction of elision that sometimes band names not intended as real abbreviations have been treated as such by imaginative fans, or by suspicious moral guardians. KISS was not an acronym, but that didn’t stop people finding Kids in Satan’s Service hiding in those four letters. The heavy metal band W.A.S.P. only put full stops between the letters of their name because they thought it looked cool. They left interpretation of their meaning to both their fans and detractors.
So there you have it – T. Rex has a louder roar than Tyrannosaurus Rex. That’s the power of abbreviation as illustrated by band names.