Thursday 13 August 2009

On Baby

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.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Isn't the movie a follower of this rather than an originator? Given that the "Baby" there was a leopard with the given name "Baby", purely for the comedic consequences, I find it improbable that it actually was the first time the phrase had been used.

Älso, Camry is a model (it's a Toyota Camry, just like the Toyota RAV4) so it seems just as acceptable to me.

I would think that "danish" is being used like "pastry" is - I know no one who says "Let's have coffee and a pastry".

DC said...

Read my piece carefully. I didn't say that the film was the first usage: I said it probably popularized it.

Re the car point: I said 'the noun is specified' - in other words, I'm talking about a 2-element noun phrase. It's the single-element NP that I find odd. Whether it's a model or not is beside the point.

David Crosbie said...

Published in 1927 -- nine years before 'Bringing Up Baby'' -- the song 'My Blue Heaven' ends:

Just Molly and me
And baby makes three
We're happy in my blue heaven

Paul Clapham said...

There's another category of writing where articles are typically dropped: those bogus user instructions which are mainly intended to absolve manufacturers from liability...

"Close door before operating vehicle"

for example.

Fran Hill said...

Another use of this appears in blog posts about people's domestic lives. I've seen it in others' blogs, but I also know in mine I use 'Husband' or 'Daughter' when writing about them. It's like creating a character, I guess. And also it seems to anonymise them in some way by not prefacing the phrase with the pronoun 'my'.

Unknown said...

The car model usage really gets under my skin. I think it's a subtle attempt to make the car model in question sound a little more prestigious or anthropomorphic, but to me it just sounds conceited.

I remember watching a TV ad for a car (Toyota or Honda? don't remember), in which the speaker dropped the article for the car they were selling, but kept it for the competing model from the other maker!

Apple's been dropping articles too, ever since the iPod came out. Sorry, ever since iPod came out.

Barrie England said...

British political parties speak of their annual meetings as 'congress', with no article.

Tom said...

By dropping the article from the noun, I guess you create a new proper noun? Much like I'm usually referred to as "Tom", not "The Tom", products such as "iPod" are not preceded with a pronoun thus implying a personification of the product - perhaps to present the product with an "identity" of sorts to the consumer.

I suppose that with "baby", could the omission of the determiner also removes the implied distance between the book, the parent and the baby, and like "iPod" this brings a more personal tone to the text?

However, I fully sympathise with the dislike of the heavy use of indirect requests (why don't you...) in texts such these - they do seem rather patronising.

R A Harless said...

What about not using "the" in front of hospital or university common to speech in England, like "next year I go to university" or "you should go to hospital"? I always notice it when watching BBC America and have wondered.

DC said...

This is a different matter. The British / American difference in idiom has been around a long time.

Fran Hill said...

Just spotted in the film listings that the latest Potter film is 'Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince'. No article where I'd expect one. Maybe I'm showing my ignorance and this is the actual name of the character, but it seems odd. Perhaps I should read the book. Anyone know the answer?

Virtual Linguist said...

I've noticed that hairdressers and magazine articles on conditioner, gel, hair putty etc often say 'product' without an article eg 'Do you use product on your hair?'

A previous commentator mentions 'congress' - politicians often omit the article before 'conference' too eg 'I put it to Conference'. I feel I need to use a capital C here, as if it were a person.

Circeus said...

Virtual Linguist, your example clearly has to do with switching "product" into a mass noun. Not necessarily an unexpected usage for hair stylists IMHO.