Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

In Praise of the Rolling Stones and Their Zeugmoids

Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the first official performance of the Rolling Stones. When it comes to songwriting, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards usually don't receive as much adulation as their counterparts in the Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But Mick and Keith have churned out some wonderful turns of phrase over the past half century. Consider this, from the Stones' 1969 single, "Honky Tonk Women": "She blew my nose and then she blew my mind."

It's a great case of strategic ambiguity. In the first clause, the verb blow takes the object "my nose" and means "to clear mucus from (the nasal passages) by exhaling forcefully." Typically one blows one's own nose, but the lyrics depict the motherly gesture of supplying a tissue or handkerchief to facilitate the nose-blowing. (Or you might read some other meanings into it.) Then in the second clause, blow takes the object "my mind," with a completely different meaning, despite the surface similarity to the first clause. Mind-blowing, as opposed to nose-blowing, is an expression that has its roots in the hallucinatory drugs of the '60s. To "blow one's mind" came to refer to experiencing the effects of a drug like LSD, or more figuratively having any pleasurably shocking mental experience.

An earlier hit song, The Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic?" from the summer of 1965, demonstrates how the expression in its early days could be used reflexively, referring to blowing one's own mind:

Your feet start tapping and you can't seem to find
How you got there, so just blow your mind

But later that year, an example of blowing someone else's mind made it to print, in a Nov. 2, 1965 Los Angeles Times article, "Way-Out Garb Offers Art Form for Clique." An 18-year-old named Phil Lichterman is quoted as saying, "The clothing makes me feel free and I dig blowing people's minds (upsetting people)." The explanatory gloss suggests it was still a very new slang idiom.

By 1969, the metaphorical sense of "to blow someone's mind" was common enough that the Stones could use it for wordplay and know that their audience would appreciate it. The double meaning given to the verb blow in the lyric resembles a classic figure of speech called zeugma, in which one word (typically a verb) governs two or more different parts of a sentence (typically clauses). One common kind of zeugma is known as syllepsis: as the Brigham Young University website Silva Rhetoricae explains, syllepsis has the added wrinkle of a semantic or grammatical incongruity, as in the Alanis Morissette lyric (from the song "Head Over Feet"), "You held your breath and the door for me."

But note that syllepsis is defined as a type of ellipsis, meaning there's something missing but implied in the sentence. In the Alanis Morissette example, she didn't sing, "You held your breath and you held the door for me." Instead, she omitted the second held, so one word is truly doing double-duty, both syntactically and semantically. The Stones lyric, by contrast, repeats the word blew in the parallel structure, giving you a chance to rehear and reinterpret it.

Since this doesn't quite fit the standard rhetorical definition of zeugma (or syllepsis), we need another term for it. Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky comes to the rescue: he dubs this figure of speech a zeugmoid. In a 2010 blog post, Zwicky gives an example of a zeugmoid he noticed in the 1950s TV serial "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet": "If you could shoot off a warhead the way you shoot off your mouth, maybe you'd have a chance." (You can hear it about 2 minutes into this YouTube clip.) As with "blew my nose/blew my mind," the ambiguous phrasal verb shoot off is repeated in both clauses.

After I noted the "Honky Tonk Women" example in a comment on Zwicky's blog, another commenter pointed out that it's not the only zeugmoid to appear in the Stones oeuvre. The 1978 song "Beast of Burden" has these lines:

You can put me out on the street,
Put me out with no shoes on my feet,
But put me out, put me out, put me out of misery.

And here's one more example I noticed, from "Ruby Tuesday" (1967), with "lose your mind" perhaps a foreshadowing of "blew my mind" in "Honky Tonk Women":

Lose your dreams
And you will lose your mind.
Ain't life unkind?

So as we raise a celebratory glass to the Stones on their semicentennial, let's be sure to credit them for their prodigious lyrical talents, zeugmoids and all.

(If you enjoyed this installment of Word Routes, you might also appreciate past installments about the songwriting of Buddy Holly, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan.)

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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:

Friday July 13th 2012, 9:01 AM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I wish I'd known the word "zeugmoid" when I blogged about the Green Day lyric "lay down your arms, give up the fight ... throw up your arms into the sky."
Wednesday July 18th 2012, 12:36 AM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
I agree with ElenaR. It would be surprising that anybody in 1969 thought the line "she blew my nose" had anything to do with snot. I assume, no matter the meaning it would still be a zeugma.


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