Lyrics & Lexicon: Grammys 2014

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Today—in honor of the Grammys—we explore the literary legacies, word origins, and surprising factoids behind some of the expressions and terms in the lyrics that had many of us singing along in 2013.

Category: Record of the Year

Winner: “Get Lucky,” by Daft Punk

This infectious chart-topper lured many onto the dance floor in 2013, but its literary opening lines might’ve inspired a few intrepid souls to take a trip to the library: “Like the legend of the phoenix; all ends with beginnings.” So what does the legend of the phoenix have to do with ends and beginnings?

The phoenix finds its origins as a mythical bird in Egyptian and Classical mythology. It had brilliant red and gold plumage and a lifespan of no less than 500 years. At the end of its life, the phoenix would construct a nest and set it and itself on fire. From the ashes, a new phoenix would emerge. This fantastical lifecycle made the phoenix a symbol of immortality, resurrection, and resilience, and over time the word itself took on new meanings reflecting the qualities of that exalted bird, such as “a person or thing of peerless beauty or excellence,” and “a person or thing that has become renewed or restored after suffering calamity or apparent annihilation.”

Nominee: “Radioactive,” by Imagine Dragons

This tale of personal transformation with apocalyptic themes takes its name from a word coined by the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie. Curie and her husband coined the French term radioactif in a paper for French Academy of Sciences in 1898. The word made the leap to English almost immediately, and a figurative sense of “emanating extreme energy characterized by unstable and hazardous behavior” emerged shortly thereafter.

Nominee: “Locked Out of Heaven,” by Bruno Mars

In this upbeat tune about an amorous awakening, crooner Bruno Mars confesses that prior to meeting the object of his lyrical affections, he preferred to play it safe in love: “Never had much faith in love or miracles; never wanna put my heart on the line.”

Believe it or not, the expression to lay it on the line meaning “to place something, such as your heart, at risk” has only been used in English for a short while. The earliest citation on record is from 1929 from short story by Damon Runyon.

Nominee: “Royals,” by Lorde

Lorde sets the stage for her anti-bling anthem with the following lyrics: “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh; I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies.” Although a literal interpretation might conjure a harrowing scene in which our songstress damages her pearly whites by chomping diamond-encrusted popcorn in the movie theater, most of us understand the line “I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies” to mean that she came to gain knowledge of diamonds by watching movies. But where does the expression cut one’s teeth come from?

Originally, the expression to cut one’s teeth referred to the growth of new teeth by youngsters or the teething of infants; the figurative extension of this expression, meaning “to do at the beginning of one’s education, career, etc., or in one’s youth,” expands on the theme of graduating from babyhood to a new to a new level of maturity or experience. A lesser-known variation on this expression is to cut one’s eyeteeth, referencing the upper canine teeth that are located just below eye.

Nominee: “Blurred Lines,” by Robin Thicke

In the context of now-ubiquitous hit single, the expression blurred lines was widely understood to mean something akin to “mixed signals.” Although this interpretation seems straightforward to us now, the expression might have fallen flat in a different era, specifically a pre-Elizabethan era. The word blur did not enter English until the mid-1500s. Prior to that, close approximations to blur available were blot, as in “a spot or stain, especially of ink on paper,” and blear, as in “cloudiness, dimness.” In fact, blur is thought perhaps to be an onomatopoeic blend of these two words. Had Thicke written this song in 1513 rather than 2013, his lines might have been blotted instead of blurred, resulting, perhaps, in a song about a botched folio or sloppy love letter as opposed to the rituals of courtship. Blot has also carried a figurative sense of “a disgrace” or “a blemish on one’s reputation” since the 15th century, which, considering the controversies the song has engendered since its debut, would make for a fitting double entendre.

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