Despite what Allan Bloom would have us believe, rock music can be a source of learning. Behold the many and variegated words (and phrases) I’ve learned from paying attention to popular music over the years.
- abraxas: A mystical word engraved on ancient amulets and charms, signifying deity.
[This was the name of Santana’s second album, which includes the Fleetwood Mac cover “Black Magic Woman.”]
- bête noire: A person or concept that is anathema; the bane of one’s existence.
[Bryan Ferry’s seventh album, which includes the song “Kiss And Tell.”]
- bon vivant: Enjoying the best things in life.
[From Paul Simon’s “American Tune”: “Still, you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant / So far away from home.”]
- cult of personality: A heroic public image created around the leader of a movement or country, often via mass media.
[Living Colour introduced me to this concept with their first single from the album Vivid.]
- desperado: A desperate, dangerous outlaw.
[From the Eagles song of the same name. It started playing on the radio when I was 3, and basically never stopped, so it was without a doubt my first exposure to this word.]
- eponymous: Self-titled (e.g. Tracy Chapman by Tracy Chapman is an eponymous album.)
[R.E.M., in their typically droll way, named their 1988 greatest hits collection Eponymous. It’s also a favorite word of rock critics.]
- eurythmic: Harmonious.
[I learned this word thanks to Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox naming their band Eurythimcs.]
- jitney: (1) A small bus. (2) An unlicensed taxi.
[From Northern State’s “Things I’ll Do”: “Plan you a trip, get you there in a jitney / Write you a song, get you soundin’ like Britney.”]
- maharishi: Spiritual teacher.
[I didn’t learn this one from any song or album, but rather from reading up on The Beatles, and the time they spent with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.]
- mahout: A person who keeps and/or drives an elephant.
[From Joan Armatrading’s “Drop The Pilot”: “Drop the mahout, I’m the easy rider / Don’t use your army to fight a losing battle.”]
- mistral: A strong, cold, often violent wind that occurs around France and Italy.
[Heart has a song I love called “Mistral Wind”, which uses the mistral as a metaphor for joyfully losing control.]
- rostrum: A stage or a raised platform for performing.
[From The Who’s “Sally Simpson”: “But soon the atmosphere was cooler as Tommy gave a lesson / Sally just had to let him know she loved him, and leapt up on the rostrum!”]
- rubicon: A point of no return.
[Journey taught me this one with the song “Rubicon” on their Frontiers album.]
- slàinte mhath: A Scots Gaelic toast, literally meaning “good health.”
[Marillion entitled a song “Slàinte Mhath” on their brilliant Clutching At Straws album.]
- son et lumière: A sound and light show.
[From Joe Jackson’s “Glamour And Pain”: “I’m hanging in the air / I look in your window at my own lipstick reflection there / And behind it such a precious son et lumière / Of all the normal stuff, about which I’m supposed to care / I’d like to smash right through / And help myself to your silverware.”]
- synchronicity: Meaningful coincidence
[Carl Jung fully articulated this concept in 1952, and Sting seized upon it in 1983, releasing the Police album Synchronicity and naming two songs after the concept: “Synchronicity I” and “Synchronicity II.”]
- terrazzo: A multicolored floor of marble or stone chips.
[From Don Henley’s “Drivin’ With Your Eyes Closed”: “So before The Death of Lovers and The Punishment of Pride / Let’s go scrape across the terrazzo / It’s just too hot outside.”]
- tinnitus: A severe ringing in the ears.
[This is another one I didn’t learn from a song or album, but rather from paying attention to the music world. Pete Townshend stopped playing electric guitar for a good long time because he suffers from tinnitus.]
I do have a couple of COMBO SCORES to award as well:
- desultory philippic: A rambling, somewhat disappointing tirade
[Simon and Garfunkel put “A Simple Desultory Philippic (or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” on their Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme album and sent me to the dictionary twice!]
- scaramouche, scaramouche, can you do the fandango?: Clown from commedia dell’arte, can you perform a Portuguese folk dance?
[Unlike many rock songs, which string meaningless lyrics together out of nonsense words, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” strings meaningless lyrics together out of actual words.]