Beyond Words - Language Blog

20 Band Name Etymologies or, Dancing About Architecture (With Myself)

In a 1983 interview with Musician Magazine, Elvis Costello said that, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”

The quote has since been attributed to a dozen other artists, from Thelonius Monk to Steve Martin (I’m surprised no one’s given Churchhill a nod). The sentiment seems to have lived on as a challenge to writers, especially in this era of the blog, so here’s my contribution. Musicians may be designated as such for their mastery of instrumentation and sound, but they do plenty of wonderfully creative things with language, and often the first indication can be found in the origin of bands’ names, which can reveal thoughtful word-play, allusions to literature and history, and foreign language associations. Here is a list of 20 band name etymologies:

Bauhaus


Originally named “Bauhaus 1919” after the German Bauhaus art movement, and shortened to “Bauhaus” in 1979

Belle and Sebastian


Inspired from a French children’s television series about a boy and his dog. The show was based on a series of French novels called Belle et Sébastien by Cécile Aubry.

Camera Obscura


Named after the pinhole camera: an optical device that dates back as far as 400 b.c.e. and was used for drawing and entertainment. It is one of the inventions leading to photography

Cibo Matto


Italian for “crazy food”.

The Decemberists


Named after the 19th century Russian revolutionary group in St. Petersburg who staged a failed coup against the Tsar at the time.

Depeche Mode


Taken from a French magazine. It means “Fashion dispatch”.

DeVotchKa


They take their name from Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat word for “young girl,” which is itself derived from the Russian word (девочка) of the same meaning.

Eurythmics


After the dance technique “Eurythmy”, which Annie Lennox studied as a child. The word eurythmy stems from Greek roots meaning beautiful or harmonious rhythm; the term was used by Greek and Roman architects to refer to the harmonious proportions of a design or building. Dancing about architecture, indeed!

Gotan Project


The name of the trio comes from a form of wordplay very common in Rioplatense Spanish that involves the reversal of syllables. Thus, the word “Tango” becomes “Gotan”, the name the trio have chosen for their project.

Fugazi


Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, offers the definition “Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In” in reference to those who were ambushed and subsequently ‘zipped in’ to body bags during the Vietnam war. Or, it possibly derives from the Italian-American slang term ‘fugazi’ for something that is “forged/not authentic.”

Hüsker Dü


In a 1987 interview the band said the name was taken from the Danish language. It translates to “Do you Remember?”. The band claims they didn’t know about the board game of the same name that was heavily advertised on television in the ’70s. They later met George Beck, the guy who created the game and actually played a game with him.

Joy Division


From the sado-masochistic novel ‘The House of Dolls’ by Karol Cetinsky. Joy Divisions were lines of huts in which deported women were forced to prostitute themselves to Nazi officers on leave.

Jefferson Airplane


American slang for an improvised roach-clip consisting of a split paper match. At least I didn’t add Steely Dan.

Les Savy Fav


The name is loosely based on a group of French artists characterized by the rejection of form who were dubbed Les Fauves, or, the wild beasts.

Oingo Boingo


Swahili for “thinking while dancing” — they started out as a musical theater group called “The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo”.

The Pogues


Shortened from “Pogue Mahone”, which is a distorted version of Póg Mo hÓn, which is Irish Gaelic for “kiss my ass”.

Röyksopp


Röyksopp, which literally means ” smoke mushroom”, is the Norwegian name for puffball mushrooms that will make a smoky cloud if touched.

Sepultura


The singer was inspired when translating the Motörhead song Dancing on your Grave, which is “Dancando Na Sepultura” in Portuguese.

Sigur Rós


From lead singer Jón Þór Birgisson’s younger sister Sigurrós, who was born the same day as the band was formed. Her name means Victory Rose in Icelandic.

Ultravox


Latin for ‘the greatest amount of voice.’

Yo La Tengo


It translates to “I’ve got it”. The band’s official website offers the following short video with the amusing baseball anecdote behind the name: Yo La Tengo and the Mets: A Band Name Origin

Sources

This list just the tip of the iceberg of available information on the subject of band name origins. Here is a list of my sources, which provide more extensive entries:

Why Are They Called Duran Duran? A Guide to Band Name Etymologies

Heathen World’s Guide to Band Names

25 Ridiculous Band Names

Wikipedia