Lyrics and Lexicon: Grammys 2015


In honor of the Grammys, we’re exploring 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 2014.

Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”
In 2014, Iggy Azalea topped the charts with her song “Fancy,” which opens with the line “First thing’s first I’m the realest.” This line sparked a number of conversations about what it means to be real in hip hop. We’re not going to weigh in on that point today. But we will say that if an English speaker from the 15th century were to travel to 2014 and listen to “Fancy,” he or she might be confused by Azalea’s mixed messages.

In the context of the song, it’s clear Azalea means something along the lines of “luxurious,” “deluxe,” or “extravagant” when she says fancy. However, when the term entered English, it carried a very different meaning. Fancy is derived from the word fantasy, referring to an imagined or illusory appearance or hallucination. The notion of the unreal is embedded into the DNA of this term. During the 15th century, it was used synonymously with the word imagination as well as with the meaning of “capricious preference, inclination, or liking,” as in He took a fancy to her. Eventually, in the 1700s, the term picked up an adjectival sense of “ornamental; decorative; not plain,” which more closely hews to how Azalea uses it.

Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”
With help from Taylor Swift, the phrase shake it off gained new relevance last year as the go-to expression for how to deal with criticism and negativity. Haters gonna hate and players gonna play, according to Swift, and the best response is to shake it off, meaning “disregard it” or “let it go.” While hardcore Swift devotees might think their beloved Taylor coined “shake it off,” this phrase has a very long history dating back at least to the early modern period.

Shakespeare used the exact phrase “shake it off” in The Tempest, first written and performed around 1611. When Prospero’s daughter Miranda tells her father “The strangeness of your story put / Heaviness in me,” Prospero responds: “Shake it off: Come on…”

Perhaps this early citation accounts for why Taylor Swift didn’t include this phrase in her list of phrases submitted to the Patent and Trademark Office this year.

Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”
Fans of Meghan Trainor know that she’s all about that bass—no treble. The expression all about was also highlighted in a Hoodie Allen song last year called “All About It.” The pairing of all and about is not new (think of the hokey-pokey), but in these songs all about is widely understood to mean “to like something a lot.” When did people start using it to describe feelings or dispositions?

Pinning such shifts is not an exact science, as much of this sort of change goes undocumented, but there is citation from popular music on record from 1980 that closely resembles Trainor’s usage. In their song “8th Wonder,” the iconic hip-hop group Sugarhill Gang offered up, “I’m all about makin’ that cold, cold cash.”

What lyrical turns of phrase caught your ear in 2014? Want more Lyrics & Lexicon? Check out last year’s installment featuring Daft Punk, Imagine Dragons, and Lorde.


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