Singer-songwriter-guitarist Glenn Frey died two weeks ago, and I found myself reflecting on the poetry of the songs he wrote with Don Henley for a Lingua Franca post (see it here). Working on that caused me to bump up against the odd fact that the band Frey and Henley co-founded had a name that nobody ever gets right.
Steve Martin reported in his autobiography Born Standing Up that Frey insisted the name was "Eagles", not "The Eagles." Thus the band had settled on a name that was supposed to be what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) calls a strong proper name like Azerbaijan, which takes no the, not a weak one like (the) Azores, which must have a the. (Language Log, by the way, is a strong proper name.)
Everyone feels they need to supply a definite article for Eagles. And there's a reason for that. Once you look at the relevant grammatical constraints of English you see that Frey was really swimming upstream.
As CGEL explicitly says (page 517), "Plural proper names are always weak."
I think CGEL has that right. If there are any plural nouns that function as strong proper names, they must be very rare. I can't think of any.
[I left comments open below for an hour or two to see if anyone could identify one, and I got two good classes of counterexamples out of it, so see below. Comments are closed now.
Plural nouns function syntactically as indefinite noun phrases; and (as again CGEL explicitly says on page 517) "a proper name is inherently definite."
So Frey was trying to make Eagles stand alone as a complete outlier in the language. No wonder he failed to get the world to go along with him: ignoring his insistence, everyone who talks about the band names them incorrectly. Even their Wikipedia article, though entitled Eagles, repeatedly uses a definite article before the name to remain in compliance with syntactic constraints.
By the way, you might think that when someone gives an address ending "Nassau, Bahamas", they are using Bahamas as a plural strong proper name. I don't think so. I think it's just an abbreviation. There are over 6,000 mentions of the Bahamas in the Wall Street Journal corpus, but when you look for the ones that don't have the definite article (I used fgrep Bahamas * | fgrep -iv 'the Bahamas', which finds all lines with Bahamas and then filters to remove all lines that have the Bahamas) you find only headlines ("Firm Intends to Buy Hotel In Bahamas for $82.5 Million"), names of companies ("Basic Resources International (Bahamas) Ltd."), addresses or datelines ("Nassau, Bahamas"), and a few uses of Bahamas as a modifier ("his Bahamas headquarters"; "a Bahamas company owned by Garland Tomlin"). You never find straight uses of Bahamas as a proper name. So don't look too superficially at words ending in s and imagine that they're counterexamples.
I'm not sure I've ever seen a straight use of Eagles as a proper name either, despite the late Glenn Frey's intent.
UPDATE: What we have here is a classic case of me not looking in the absolutely most obvious place: I didn't go through a list of other band names! The comments already entered below provide overwhelming evidence that CGEL should be very slightly modified. Plural proper names are always weak except that (1) numerous pop groups and rock bands have named themselves with plural nouns, and (2) some UK soccer teams have plural names. So Eagles are not as alone as I thought.
In a way, the general constraint still stands confirmed with band names, though: the other band names (Eurhythmics, Dead Kennedys, Sparks, Men At Work, Talking Heads, etc.) also get spurious definite articles prefixed to them, as people follow the normal pattern of English proper names. All of the bands who followed this exceptional course in naming themselves are swimming upstream syntactically.
The other class of exceptions is perhaps clearer: Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers, and Rangers seem to function perfectly (in British English) as proper names despite their plural noun form.
One commenter points out that some books of the Bible have plural noun names; but I think they work as singular NPs syntactically: we say "Numbers is the fourth book of the Old Testament", "I think Psalms is more interesting than Lamentations", and so on. So those are plural nouns locked up inside singular NPs that function as strong proper names, which is not quite the same as true plural-noun strong proper names. The same is true of other book titles, like Sons and Lovers (see Bloix below): you need to test them by seeing which agreement form you would use on a verb if the book title was the subject. Some cases are clearer than others, but I think we would say Talking Heads were recording a new album and Bolton Wanderers are not doing well this season, with plural agreement, right?
My thanks to all the commenters, and special thanks to Ben Zimmer for reminding me of a couple of pieces including an old Language Log post that have dealt with band names (see his comment below).
One other thing: Cory Lubliner points out to me that there are place names consisting of a modifier plus a plural noun: Council Bluffs, Englewood Cliffs, and Beverly Hills, for example. But they also seem to be singular: Englewood Cliffs is in New Jersey, and so on.