Saturday, February 03, 2007

Hell Bent For Apostrophes

The Hells Angels made the news in New York City this week. After a woman was beaten in front of Hells Angels club HQ on the Lower East Side, NYPD showed up equipped to deal with an army and raided the place. This was an indignity the noble Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) would not suffer lightly. They called civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby. The HAMC has won $800,000 in lawsuits from the City of New York in the last decade or so from just this sort of affair.

What interested in me in this story was what the club called themselves. At the end of the Associated Press account of the incident, there's a curious couple of paragraphs:
Reputation aside, it is impossible to argue one thing: The Angels are sticklers for punctuation. In 1987, [club member Brendan] Manning was on trial for methamphetamine distribution along with [Paul] Casey in Manhattan federal court.

The morning after opening statements, one of the Hells Angels in attendance — holding the day's newspaper — approached a reporter and asked if he had written the article inside. The reporter said yes, and the biker leaned forward.

"It's Hells Angels," he said quietly. "No apostrophe."
The motorcycle club's punctuation style hasn't reached the halls of Oxford. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary spells it with the apostrophe.

Incidentally, my Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary had no reference to the club. It did define the term "hell-for-leather," both as an adverb (coined in 1889 -- perhaps by Rudyard Kipling -- as 'at full speed') and as an adjective (coined 1920 as 'marked by determined recklessness, great speed, or lack of restraint), a term that could amply describe the HAMC.

By contrast, Oxford made no mention of "hell-for-leather," but defined only "hell-bent," a term that it banally defines as 'determined to achieve something at all costs.' I like the Merriam-Webster definition: 'stubbornly and often recklessly determined or intent.' Gives more of that "hell-for-leather" flavor, conjuring up images of Judas Priest's 1979 album "Hell Bent For Leather", an early heavy metal classic.

But I digress.

The infamous Hells Angels motorcycle club started in Fontana, California in March 1948. They may be sticklers for punctuation, they are not necessarily sticklers for correct punctuation. The apostrophe missing from their name has magically appeared in the club's history on hellsangels.com: "A historical review of the exploits and accomplishments of the implied Bomber Group, 303rd Bombardment Groups (Heavy) (303rd) European Theater of Operations (ETO) show's that this bomber unit did not tolerate malcontents, drunken pilots or aircrews." Can you find it?

The Angels are also eager to correct the widely-reported myth that the HAMC started from a WWII bomber group known for its disorderly behavior. Not true, says 'Stew,' a Charleston member:
From available historical information at HAMC Berdoo and extensive research by the 303rd reveals that no lineage exists between the HAMC and the 303rd other than both organizations having the same name.
The naming of the club, Stew takes pains to explain, came not from rowdy former bomber pilots, but from a friend of the original members named Arvid Olsen. Olsen was a part of a semi-secret U.S. Air Force fighter group called the "Flying Tigers," which were assigned to shoot down Japanese fighter planes over China in WWII. Olsen's particular squadron had the name "Hell's Angels," a name he suggested, along with the white and red color scheme, to the real founders of the club back in 1948. Olsen was never an actual member of the club.

And just in case you're thinking of starting your own gang using an apostrophed version of the Hells Angels: "HAMC has copyrighted the name Hells Angels (in any form of spelling) in the US and Internationally, along with all variations of the "Deathshead" insignia of HAMC."

Oh, and it's a club, not a gang. That fact and the whole apostrophe thing are explained on the club's FAQ:
Should the Hells in Hells Angels have an apostrophe, and be Hell's Angels? That would be true if there was only one Hell, but life & history has taught us that there are many versions and forms of Hell.
But then shouldn't it be Hells' Angels?

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3 Comments:

Blogger k said...

Proper nouns won't have apostrophes if the creator of the word doesn't employ one. Proper nouns are nonlogical. Hells Angels has the right to define its spelling without regard to established grammar or style.

Hells Angels is not really a group comprised of angels of "Hell", but a club of men. The name of the club is suggestive of angels of hell, but not literally descriptive of angels of hell.

Also, I believe that Hells Angels is a registered trademark. From what I remember about trademarks, suggestive marks are easier to defend in court as unique if infringement ever occurs. Removing the apostrophe would also add to the strength of the mark. There is only one Hells Angels. Copyrights have a limited life whereas trademarks have no specified term.

Journalists and writers should remember the sometimes arbitrary nature of proper nouns. A club or firm is just like a person for names. We should ask that entity how its name is spelled and follow that recipe exactly.

11:29 AM  
Blogger The Masticator said...

I agree. With a proper noun, you can do what ever you want. It reminds me of the whole "Scholars Walk" debate at the University of Minnesota, in which the U decided to leave out the apostrophe so that the title of the oak-lined path would be unencumbered by unsightly punctuation.

Here's what the U news service and Star Tribune columnist Steven Wilbers said:

"Wilbers favors an apostrophe, partly because it makes sense when you substitute an irregular plural (don't ask), and that it helps avoid ambiguity. Plus, 'Why draw attention to the fact that scholars walk, when scholars read, scholars write, and scholars publish?' Wilbers notes. 'To omit the apostrophe would be to invite the inevitable jokes.'"

I have no problem with an executive decision eliminating the apostrophe for the Hells Angles, but to seemingly invoke a grammar rule by saying that there is more than one hell doesn't solve the problem, it creates a different one.

It would be like saying 'Hell Angels.' The Hell being a descriptor for the Angels. I suppose that works, but it would have shut me upo quicker if they just said 'This is how we do it.'

But can you imagine the discussion among club members?

12:33 PM  
Blogger k said...

I actually remember the Scholars Walk debate, but could not recall the specifics other than that it happened at the University of Minnesota.

I looked into trademarks at wikipedia and found that by removing the apostrophe, Hells Angels would probably become a fancy mark and receive the highest sort of protection against infringement. From what I remember, trademarks can loose protection if they are not used or not defended, so the organization should prevent or correct misprints.

Their definition of why they don't use an apostrophe should be the old stand by - "because I said so!" or the more modern "That's my name, BITCH!"

4:05 PM  

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