Bob Dylan turns 70 today, and among the hosannas from his fellow musicians is this one from Emmylou Harris: "He changed the way we think about the English language." Surely Dylan has vastly expanded the lyrical possibilities for songwriters who have followed in his wake, but his use of language has also left some more subtle fingerprints on the lexicon.

Dylan's reinvention of the pop-song format in the 1960s freed songwriting from the constraints of previous generations — what has often been called the moon/June/spoon school of Tin Pan Alley lyricizing. Consider these lines from "Visions of Johanna" off of his 1966 album Blonde on Blonde:

Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial.
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while.
But Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles.

A deft ability to combine words into evocative, unexpected, and often cryptic imagery is a hallmark of Dylan's songwriting. But occasionally his individual words have left an impression: take weatherman from "Subterranean Homesick Blues," in the line "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." A radical faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) picked up on that one word to name their splinter group. ("Weatherman" later came to be known as the "Weather Underground Organization.") And then there's Memphis, from the song "Stuck Inside of Mobile (With Those Memphis Blues Again)." When a group of young furniture designers met in Milan, Italy in 1980, the song was on the turntable and got stuck on the words "Memphis Blues Again." They decided to name their post-modernist collective Memphis in honor of the song.

Dylan's use of language hasn't always sat well with sticklers: the song "Lay, Lady, Lay" has been held up as a prime offender in the confusion between lie and lay. (See Margaret Hundley Parker's complaint here and my response here.) Elsewhere his word choice has been even more head-scratching. In "Ballad in Plain D," from the 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan, he sings:

The constant scrapegoat, she was easily undone
By the jealousy of others around her.

In the official published lyrics, the line is "corrected" to scapegoat, but he clearly sings scrapegoat. That's a good example of what linguists have taken to calling an "eggcorn," which is a reshaping of a word or phrase into a similar-sounding version that makes sense in a new way. (Read our interview with Geoffrey Pullum for a description of how the term came about.) I entered scrapegoat into the Eggcorn Database, and commenters there have wondered whether Dylan's twisted usage was intentional or not. With Dylan, it's never quite clear.

Another example of a word in Dylan's lyrics that could be seen as either erroneous or poetic (or both) is prophesize from "The Times They Are A-Changin'," on the 1963 album of the same name:

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again.

Dylan was perhaps reaching for a different verb: prophesy, the last syllable of which has been historically pronounced like "sigh" (as opposed to the noun prophecy, with a final syllable pronounced like "see"). It's a peculiar pronunciation, and it has led some to reinterpret it with the verb suffix -ize, yielding prophesize. Before Dylan used it so prominently, however, dictionaries took little notice of this form. The Oxford English Dictionary originally had a brief entry, spelled prophecize, marked as a "nonce word" (a one-time ad-hoc formation) with a single citation from 1816. Spurred in part by Dylan's usage, the OED has expanded the entry for prophesize in its latest revision. Dylan didn't coin the word — along with the 1816 citation from Lady Granville, there are other earlier examples, including from James Fenimore Cooper — but "The Times They Are A-Changin'" undoubtedly made prophesize more popular. Just look at how its usage has increased since the early 1960s on Google's Ngram Viewer.

So did Dylan enshrine a misheard version of the verb prophesy? It's not as straightforward as that. One could say that he remade the word in a Dylanesque fashion: it sounds quite similar to his use of the verb philosophize in another song from The Times They Are a-Changin', "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll": "You who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears." (That line has also merited an OED citation, with philosophize defined as "to render philosophical.") Words are Dylan's playthings, and the results of his tinkering have enriched our shared language for five decades now.

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Ben Zimmer 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:

Tuesday May 24th 2011, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Constance M. (Waverly, IA)
Seems like everyone made fun of George Bush for this same type of thing...
Tuesday May 24th 2011, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Russell M. B. (Toronto Canada)
The use of "prophesize" in the movie The Matrix didn't help any either. For the last 20 or more years I've heard this word regularly used by students, probably more often than the correct form.
Wednesday May 25th 2011, 10:55 PM
Comment by: Joseph M.
I personally don't think Dylan ever took as much time worrying about the words. He just "saw" them, in his mind and he wrote them. I got high, and sang them to everyone, who were all high, and we loved them. Don't over analyze these lyrics.
Friday May 27th 2011, 9:16 AM
Comment by: Francisco Javier (Málaga Spain)
I won't be teaching the ungrammatical use of "lay" any time soon, I can tell you that. If I can distinguish between "lie-lay-lain" and "lay-laid-laid", surely it shouldn't be much of a problem for native English speakers.

Also, I don't think you should be labelled a "stickler" for using them correctly. If so, every time you speak the language you will be called a stickler.
Friday May 27th 2011, 12:58 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Francisco: Let's put it this way -- you're not a stickler if you observe the lie/ lay distinction in your own usage, but you are one if you get on Dylan's case for not observing it in his usage!
Monday May 30th 2011, 3:41 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I agreed with Joseph M.
Mr. Zimmer's presentation is always so refined, yet in confused cases it generates additional dumbness. Readers like me got lost.
Thank you any way for presenting the differences.
Monday August 1st 2011, 8:08 AM
Comment by: Pamela L.
But as a nonce "prophesize" is brilliant used as Dylan did with "the chance won't come again."
Thursday October 13th 2016, 1:45 PM
Comment by: Fred H. (MD)
The most overrated writer ever to trod the earth, as all of the above selected quotes illustrate.
Thursday October 13th 2016, 1:56 PM
Comment by: Fred H. (MD)
Uh, that's tread the earth (!).

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