The Top 10: Unexpected Words in Famous Songs

Expand your vocabulary by listening to popular music! We just need Rita Ora to record a Christmas single featuring all these words

John Rentoul
Saturday 25 November 2017 11:29
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‘A geometrical figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole, useful in modelling structures (such as snowflakes) in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales’
‘A geometrical figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole, useful in modelling structures (such as snowflakes) in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales’

This all started with someone called The Saturday Gallery, who nominated the last one. I received a lot of suggestions of unusual words in songs written by people known for verbal inventiveness (“milkfloat” in “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide” by David Bowie; “Bakelite” in “No Action” by Elvis Costello), but what I was looking for was unusual words in otherwise unremarkable lyrics.

1. Fractals, in “Let It Go”, from Frozen (above). Not even needed for a rhyme: “My power flurries through the air into the ground / My soul is spiralling in frozen fractals all around.” Nominated by Galileo Figaro (Iain Neasom).

2. Pagliacci, in “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson: “Just like Pagliacci did / I try to keep my sadness hid.” Rob Prince said: “Smokey seems to be name-checking the 19th-century opera Pagliacci (Clowns) by Ruggero Leoncavallo, although he probably should have used the singular ‘pagliaccio’. Impressive cultural one-upmanship, all the same, and probably the only instance of Italian opera surfacing in a modern pop song, outside of Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Madame Butterfly’.” Also nominated by Rosalind Napier and Baldymemike.

3. Quotient, in “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin. “Apparently because they couldn’t find another rhyme for ‘devotion’ and ‘emotion’,” said Alasdair Brooks. “This is the mystery of the quotient / Upon us all, upon us all a little rain must fall.”

4. Predicate, in “Express Yourself” by NWA. Which also contains the line, “Movin’ like a tortoise, full of rigor mortis,” said James Morris.

5. Theosophy, in “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear”, by Blondie. Already nonsensical before the reference to the teachings of Helena Blavatsky, Russian occultist: “We could navigate together, psychic frequencies / Coming into contact with outer entities / We could entertain each one with our theosophy.” Another from Alasdair Brooks.

6. Plebeian, in “Cry me a River”, by Arthur Hamilton, sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London, Michael Buble, and others. “You told me love was too plebeian / Told me you were through with me and...”. Thanks to Alan D Melvin, Rob Alliott and Simon Wilder.

7. Gavotte, in “You’re so Vain” by Carly Simon, “implying that the target of the song – whether Warren Beatty or Mick Jagger – was prone to 18th-century French dances because she needed a rhyme for ‘yacht’”: a third from Alasdair Brooks. Also nominated by Graham Fildes.

8. Inhaling, in “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child. “Thought I couldn’t breathe without you, I’m inhaling.” Nominated by Anna Rhodes and Yas Necati.

9. Centripetal, in “This Kiss” by Faith Hill. Nominated by David Stainer. Although it may be “centrifugal”, the opposite, which is what Aimee Van Vliet thought. Online lyrics differ. I prefer “It’s centripetal motion” (the force moving towards the centre).

10. Encumber, in “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”. Thanks to The Saturday Gallery: “He would not encumber me.”

Honourable mention for Harry Hemmings-Batt for “kakistocracy”, in “Intimate Secretary” by The Raconteurs. “Are you part of this kakistocracy?” Not sure how famous that is, but it is an unusual word for a pop song. A system of government which is run by the worst, least qualified, or most unscrupulous citizens (17th century).

Thanks to Mary Elwin for the Spotify playlist.

Next week: Governments in exile, after Carles Puigdemont, Catalan leader, fled to Brussels

Coming soon: Political Excuses, after Chris Heaton-Harris, the Conservative MP, wrote to universities asking about courses on Brexit and said he wasn’t trying to curb free expression – according to Jo Johnson, the universities minister, he “was pursuing inquiries of his own that may in time lead to a book”.

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to top10@independent.co.uk

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