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.

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

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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