Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Rocking the English Language

The latest quarterly update of the Oxford English Dictionary's online revision project covers the alphabetical range Rh to rococoesque, and it includes a fascinatingly complex entry for a seemingly simple word: rock, used as a verb. From the rocking of cradles in Old English sources to the rocking of microphones in rap lyrics, this entry has it all.

In this Sunday's "On Language" column for the New York Times Magazine, I talk about how I helped piece together the history of some of the modern colloquial meanings of rock, particularly those that came out of the hip-hop subculture brewing in the South Bronx and Upper Manhattan in the late 1970s. It was there that MC's (as rappers were originally known) first professed their prowess in "rocking the mic." (Note that rappers, like others in the recording/performing world, tend to agree with the AP Stylebook Editors in abbreviating microphone as mic, not mike.)

Before the hip-hop era, as the OED entry lays out, rock had a number of related meanings falling under the general rubric, "to perform or dance to music." Blues singers relied on rock to provide not-so-veiled double entendres, as in Trixie Smith's 1922 song, "My Man Rocks Me With One Steady Roll." This meaning got transformed to indicate the capacity of musical performances to thrill or inspire, as in the expressions "rock the crowd" or "rock the joint." As an intransitive verb, music with a driving beat could be said to "rock" — especially, of course, the emerging genre of rock 'n' roll.

But it was the pioneers of rap music who exploited the verb rock to its fullest potential, starting with the set phrase "rock the mic" and extending in a stunning variety of directions. Consider this line from the 2008 memoir of the legendary DJ Grandmaster Flash, describing the special skills of each of the MC's in his crew (known as the Furious Five), along with his own:

Cowboy rocked the crowd, Creole rocked the flow, Mel rocked the entire English language, Ness rocked the style, Rahiem rocked the ladies, and I rocked the turntables harder than ever.

This single sentence wonderfully encapsulates many of the contemporary meanings of rock. Rahiem "rocked the ladies," a usage going back to those suggestive blues songs, while Cowboy "rocked the crowd," also applying an older musical idiom. Flash, as the DJ, "rocked the turntables," understood in the same sense as "rock the mic," namely, "to handle effectively and impressively; to use or wield effectively, esp. with style or self-assurance." Kidd Creole "rocked the flow," where flow refers to smooth, continuous rhyming (a prized element of vocal artistry among freestyle rappers), while Ness "rocked the style," illustrating the extension of rock from performance techniques to the sporting of clothes and stylish accessories. And then there's Melle Mel, the MC who "rocked the entire English language"! That's a whole lot of rocking.

Have you heard any interesting uses of the verb rock? Let us know in the comments below!

Update: My "On Language" column is now online here.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday July 9th 2010, 7:47 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
How about the hortatory exclamation, 'Rock on!'? The phrase was popularised in Britain by our comedy duo, Tommy Cannon and Bobby Ball, who shot to fame in the late 1970s. One of Ball's catchphrases was 'Rock on Tommy!' This inspired the title of the 1981 musical, 'Rock On Simon Peter!'
Friday July 9th 2010, 8:10 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
A couple of uses of 'rock' in Flash's incredible sentence don't actually break as much new ground as at first appears. 'Rock the crowd' and 'rock the turntables' fulfil the standard dictionary definition of 'rock' as 'to cause to move back and forth'. But I can see that he was probably not using the word in that orthodox way!

I know you're interested in the verb, but I'm curious if America has the confectionery, 'rock'. It is in the shape of a tube, and there is a word or phrase spelled out on the top face of the tube. The amazing thing is that as you work your way down (at great risk to your teeth), the word or phrase never disappears. These 'sticks of rock' are particularly associated with our seaside resort, Blackpool, in the northwest. I haven't the faintest idea why it became known as 'rock', since it never resembles a rock. But they are rock hard, I suppose.
Friday July 9th 2010, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Pierre (The Woodlands, TX)
Well, let's call a spade a spade. To "rock" is 1) to have sexual intercourse 2) to swing rhytmically. 3) to undergo experiences leading to post-traumatic stress disorder.

and:
To "rock" is to get drunk ... (because of the unsteadiness of it)
I guess then to get stoned by way of pot or hash is related ...
in the duality of swinging and being dense in the head ...
Friday July 9th 2010, 10:09 AM
Comment by: Simon Albrecht (Maidenhead United Kingdom)
Common in the UK is "rock up", meaning to arrive, attend, be there. (nothing to do with drug-taking .....)

Examples are "I'll rock up sometime after 2 tomorrow", and

"We rocked up after the interval"
Friday July 9th 2010, 10:53 AM
Comment by: andrew W. (Pittsburgh, PA)
If I were to rock the vote for this article, I'd give it five stars.
Friday July 9th 2010, 11:38 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Geoff: The phrasal verb rock on is a nice example of musically driven usage. I'm reminded of the Chuck Berry song "Viva Viva Rock and Roll" ("Rock on, oh my soul") and the Beatles cover of "Honey Don't" (Ringo shouts, "Oh, rock on George, one time for me!").

Simon: Rock up appears in the new OED entry, meaning "to arrive, turn up, esp. casually, late, or unexpectedly," dating back to 1975 (originally in South African usage).
Friday July 9th 2010, 12:10 PM
Comment by: Simon Albrecht (Maidenhead United Kingdom)
Thanks Ben!

Is there any reference there to "rock up" meaning to prepare/consume crack cocaine? In the same way as "light up" a joint, etc?
Friday July 9th 2010, 12:32 PM
Comment by: Pierre (The Woodlands, TX)
My facebook thread directly as a result of this essay: http://www.facebook.com/to.exist#!/to.exist?v=wall&story_fbid=135996506421333
Friday July 9th 2010, 12:52 PM
Comment by: Remo (Morrisville, NC)
Rock is used as a salutation between the members of the Raleigh area band, Pfiesteria, when answering the phone, instead of hello or what's up. The tradition is continuing with the surviving members in the new band Jehovah's Witness Protection Program.

Remo
Friday July 9th 2010, 2:10 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Simon: There's a large number of slang uses of rock related to crack cocaine (or more generally to cocaine in rock form, a meaning of rock dated to 1973). The OED doesn't explore these as much as some slang dictionaries. Cassell's Dictionary of Slang, edited by Jonathon Green, doesn't have rock up in the relevant sense, but it does include the verb rock meaning "to make pure cocaine into crack cocaine," rock out meaning "to collapse through an excessive consumption of crack cocaine," etc. Green's Dictionary of Slang on Historical Principles, to be published later this year, will no doubt be even more comprehensive in its coverage of these uses.
Friday July 9th 2010, 5:02 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
How about "rock" in the fashion sense, i.e., "Here's how to rock a pencil skirt!" (Naturally, one must use the Fashion Singular in this context: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/candlepwr/2236/)
Friday July 9th 2010, 5:35 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Nancy: The fashion sense ("to wear, esp. with panache") is what I was alluding to when I mentioned the extension of the transitive verb to "the sporting of clothes and stylish accessories." I give an example in the Times column, too: Kanye West boasting about how he "rocks a bespoke suit." The earliest usage that we were able to find for the OED entry is from the 1987 song "Elementary" by Boogie Down Productions: "Watchin all these females rock their pants too tight."

It's not just clothes, of course -- you can rock a haircut, a gold tooth, or any number of other personal styles or accoutrements. On Twitter last night there were a lot of people tweeting about how LeBron James was "rockin the Rick Ross beard" (Rick Ross being a rapper from Miami).
Saturday July 10th 2010, 5:37 PM
Comment by: Michele H. (Long Island City, NY)
The fashion sense — e.g., to rock a t-shirt — is a phrase I've heard for what feels like decades from a friend who's been a well known part of the NYC scene since the 1960s. He also talks about "re-rocking" a given object, piece of music, concept, saying — pretty much anything; by that he means to bring whatever it is back into fashion.
Tuesday July 13th 2010, 9:20 AM
Comment by: Merkatron (London United Kingdom)
I don't normally listen to Def Leppard, but their 1992 hit "Let's Get Rocked" uses the verb "to rock" in a number of imaginative ways... well, imaginative for a bunch of poodle-permed soft metal vendors such as them.

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