A correspondent writes to say he's noticed a trend to drop articles from common words or phrases. In reading baby books he's noticed that 'they refer to the baby as simply baby, as if they assume you will name your child Baby. They never use a baby, the baby, or your baby'. He considers this a 'misuse... exasperating'. And he sees the same trend also in coffee and danish and in TV ads for cars - Get $2,000 back on Camry. 'Am I overreacting?' he asks.
Yes, in a word. 'Never say never' has to be the watchword in linguistics. I just pulled down off my shelves two of the most famous baby books of all time. The opening paragraph of Dr Spock's book has a and the before baby five times. Penelope Leach's book is actually called Your Baby and Child, and uses articles throughout. Plainly my correspondent has noticed a distinctive style that some authors use, but by no means all.
Where has it come from? English doesn't use articles before proper nouns, so the dropping of an article can be a sign of a change in the grammatical status of the noun, as my correspondent senses. The motivation is easy to see. One talks of Mummy and Daddy, so why not Baby, to complete the triad? The media will have had its influence in popularizing the usage. Bringing up Baby was a very popular film (Hepburn, Grant), and the phrase has named a TV series, as well as several books and websites. I don't know whether the usage was around a century ago, and if anyone has an example I'd love to know of it.
The extension to cars was a natural metaphorical development: Baby Bentley, Rolls, Ford, Austin..., so it was not long before the abbreviated form came into use too, with people saying 'How's baby?', and suchlike, referring to the car. Bringing up baby has been used several times as the headline of car articles.. And other products have been babified too, such as hoovers, cookers, and tables. It seems to be a perfectly standard naming option now.
The exasperation probably comes when the noun is used generically, as in some baby books. Any generic person label can be given this treatment. Tell Teacher. Let Nurse do it. There's a 'baby talk' feel about some of these expressions which can seem patronizing or demeaning to adults. I recall a drill-sergeant in a comedy film once saying sarcastically to an unhappy recruit 'Tell Sergeant all about it, then'. I imagine my correspondent has sentences in mind like this:"Why don't you let Baby have his first toothbrush in a bright colour?' I don't like that style much either. It feels like the author talking down to me. There, there, David. It'll be all right.
The other examples are different. It's normal to omit the article in headlines, headings, and suchlike. Certainly it's common in ads. Usually, in car ads, the noun is specified with a model name: 'cash back on Toyota RAV4'. I don't routinely see things like 'cash back on Toyota', singular, so the Camry example is odd, to my mind. The same abbeviated style accounts for 'coffee and Danish', again very common in restaurant signs. In this case, there is a motivation for speech, as customers will readily ask for what they read. I'll have coffee and Danish, please. It's not the same trend that we see in Baby.