Music History

50 Rock Songs That Will Increase Your Vocabulary

My father loves Reader’s Digest. Next to the “Life’s Like That” anecdotes, he enjoyed the column called “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power,” which was his monthly opportunity to increase his vocabulary. Maybe I got my love of words from him because once he showed me the column, I started reading it religiously.

As someone who does a lot of writing and reading, I have great respect for someone who has the gift of finding just the right words and phrases to get a point across. And I’ve discovered that you can increase your word power in all sorts of ways. That includes listening to rock music.

For example, when I first heard Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I was moved to look up “bohemian” in the dictionary. George Harrison taught me about the Hare Krishnas. I still know how to ask someone to sleep with me in French thanks to Labelle and “Lady Marmalade” (not that it’s ever worked, of course). I once did an English project that deciphered words in the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” (Pilchards, anyone?) The only reason I know the definition of a “levee” is thanks to Led Zeppelin and Don McLean. And I got a great lesson in mid-70s British politics from the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK.”

This is nicely summed up in an article at The Weeklings entitled “50 Rock & Roll Songs That Increased My Word Power.”

ROCK AND ROLL SONGS have taught me a lot. And by “rock & roll,” I mean rock, folk, punk, funk, metal, prog, R & B, disco, rap, and pop. While peers, family, and work edified me in various ways outside of school, rock and roll songs, specifically, taught me the value of defiance, the efficacy of shock, etc. No surprises there. As the years trundle on, however, I realize something less obvious: rock and roll, an art form ostensibly focused on the less cerebral aspects of life, has actually enhanced my vocabulary. And I know I’m not alone.

There’s much good in this. Because music is the second greatest time-travel device (scent is the first), I can pinpoint when and where I learned certain words, and this feels like a triumph over forgetfulness. I connect to my formative years – roughly toddlerhood through about 15 – in which I listened constantly to my mom’s records, my first LPs, and the radio, grooving, daydreaming, but also, apparently, learning. (After this time I became a voracious reader and paid more attention in school.)

For instance, I have no idea when and where I learned the word encyclopedia. But I do remember when and where I learned the word bustle. Bustle, of course, refers to the Victorian garment (designed by a sadist) to enhance a woman’s posterior, and in Led Zeppelin’s deathless “Stairway to Heaven,” Robert Plant sings, “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now / It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.” I wondered what that was, that bustle, so I looked it up. I was 12. (I also wondered what it was doing in the hedgerow, but I had my ideas.)

Continue reading. What words has rock’n’roll taught you? (And try to keep it clean, okay?)

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38413 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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