Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


Words I Learned From Rock and Roll

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.]


Words I Learned From Comics


Words I Learned From Role-Playing Games


  1. Holy shit, I always thought “Eurythmics” was just a mashup of “European” and “rhythmic”.

  2. jrw

    It’s a pity about Pete Townshend’s hearing. I used to think his tinnitus was caused by playing loud rock music, but now I’m pretty firmly convinced it dates to that infamous explosion that Keith Moon set off during one of their television appearances.

    In case that story is obscure — it’s one of those things that is kind of humorous. It was just supposed to go bang at the end of the set, but during rehearsal it went pluffft. So a stage hand put some more blast powder in. And then the explosives guy put some more blast powder in, not knowing the stagehand had done it. And then Keith put a bunch more blast powder in, not knowing…


    Right in poor Pete’s ear. In the footage of it you can see him staggering around, obviously knocked senseless by it. And with a ringing in his ears that never quite went away…

  3. though Pete now says his hearing was ruined from listening to music with headphones while drunk or stoned. The good news is that he says his tinnitus is under control due to some alternative healing method he used.

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