24 Songs That Prematurely Expanded Our Vocabularies

On learning "commiserate" from Blink-182 and "impermanence" from David Bowie

Lyrics in popular music have been blamed for social ills ranging from drug use to the London riots. But as back-to-school season approaches, it's worth pointing out how Top 40 radio can make people smarter—by teaching them new words. When singers venture out beyond rhyming "love" and "above," they often resort to terms you'd expect to see in an SAT question rather than a pop song. For example: Any rap-loving high schooler has likely gotten a crash-course in the precise meanings of "decadence" and "opulence" by listening to the new Kanye West/Jay-Z album. What other hits in history have expanded vocabularies? Our investigation below:

What'd we miss?

Presented by

Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

Spencer Kornhaber is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers pop culture and music. He was previously an editor at Patch.com and a staff writer at OC Weekly. He has written for Spin, The AV Club, and RollingStone.com.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."

Video

What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.

Video

Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.

Video

Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.

Video

How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

Just In