The Grammarphobia Blog: Rock around the clock

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Q: I used to have a coworker who bragged that he “rocked” his opponents in bar fights, meaning he knocked them out or pummeled them. I haven’t heard anyone else use “rock” that way. Is there a history to this usage, perhaps a region where it’s common?

A: English has two etymologically distinct words “rock,” both dating from Anglo-Saxon times: a noun derived from rocca, medieval colloquial Latin for a large stone, and a verb of prehistoric Germanic origin meaning to sway from side to side.

We haven’t found a definite source for the rare fighting use of “rock” you’re asking about, but it may have been influenced by various senses derived from either the noun or the verb. Here’s the story.

When “rock” first appeared in Old English, it was a noun that was part of the compound stanrocca (“stone rock”), a pointed or projecting rock, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Latin-Old English Cleopatra Glossaries: “Obolisci, stanrocces.” Obolisci is Latin for “obelisks.”

(The glossaries, held at the British Library, are named for a bust of Cleopatra that sat on a bookcase where the manuscripts were kept in the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton.)

The noun appears by itself in the next OED citation, which is from the lyrics of an early Middle English religious ballad about Judas, written sometime before 1275:

“Iudas, go þou on þe roc heie up-on þe ston, lei þin heued i my barm, slep þou þe anon” (“Judas, go thou on the rock, high upon the stone, lay thine head in my bosom, sleep thou anon”). From English Lyrics of the 13th Century (1932), by Carleton Brown.

When the other word “rock” appeared in Old English, it was a verb meaning “to move (a child) gently to and fro in a cradle, etc., in order to soothe it or send it to sleep,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest  example, which we’ve expanded, is from a 12th-century homily about the Virgin Mary by Ralph d’Escures, Archbishop of Canterbury:

“On his cildlicen unfernysse, heo hine baðede, & beðede, & smerede, & bær, & frefrede, & swaðede, & roccode” (“In his childhood infirmity, she bathed him, and warmed him, and anointed him, and carried him, and comforted him, and swaddled him, and rocked him”).

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the verb is derived from a prehistoric Germanic base reconstructed as rukk- and meaning “move.” Ayto cites similar words in other Germanic languages, such as the German rücken (“move”) and the Dutch rukken (“pull, jerk”).

The original cradle-rocking sense of “rock” has given us many other senses, including to shake physically (1300) or psychologically (1881), to disturb or “rock the boat” (1903), to dance to music with a strong beat (1931), and to “rock and roll” (1941).

It’s possible that the sense of shaking someone physically may have influenced the punching and fighting meaning of the verb “rock” that you’re asking about. But we’ve seen no evidence to support this.

Another possible influence is an entirely different verb “rock” that appeared in American regional English at the beginning of the 17th century with a violent slang sense. Derived from the noun “rock,” it meant to throw stones at someone or something—that is to stone them.

The Dictionary of American Regional English says the usage chiefly occurs in the South and South Midland regions, but the earliest DARE example is from a Philadelphia newspaper:

“ ‘Rock him! rock him!’ cried the boys, ‘rock him round the corner’ … The wearer was ‘rocked’ till he turned his cloak inside out” (Public Ledger, Aug. 30, 1836).

The earliest Southern example in DARE is an 1899 entry in a book about the regional dialect of Virginia: “Rock … To throw rocks. ‘You boys stop rocking’ ” (Word Book of Virginia Folk-Speech, 1912, by Bennett Wood Green).

However, we haven’t seen any evidence that the stoning sense of the verb “rock” inspired the fighting usage you’re asking about. In fact, we haven’t found any etymological or slang reference that notes the use of “rock” as to fight or punch.

However, Green’s Dictionary of Slang has two examples for “rock it” used to mean fight, an obscure sense that showed up in the early 20th century.

The first example is from Capricornia, a 1938 novel by the Australian writer Xavier Herbert, set in Australia’s Northern Territory: “Rock it into him, Darkey—you got him now!”

The next Green’s citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the American musical West Side Story (1957), with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents:

“We’re gonna rock it tonight, / We’re gonna jazz it up and have us a ball! / They’re gonna get it tonight; / The more they turn it on, the harder they’ll fall!”

The word “rock” has many other meanings, as both a verb and a noun, but we’ll end with a fashion sense that evolved in the late 20th century from the original baby-rocking verb.

The OED defines this modern verb as “to wear, esp. with panache; to display, flaunt, or sport (as a personally distinctive style, accessory, possession, etc.).”

The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ve expanded, is from “Elementary,” a 1987 song by the hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions, with lyrics by KRS-One (Lawrence Parker) and Scott La Rock (Scott Monroe Sterling):

“Watchin’ all these females rock their pants too tight, / Cos there’s no other creative composition on display / That give a full analysis and rock this way.”

A more recent example that we’ve found is this headline from the Daily Mail (London, July 11, 2022): “Kourtney Kardashian rocks edgy black and white leather jacket and thick sunglasses while posing for mirror selfie.”

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