'Rock' meaning 'wear' or 'sport'

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Tue Sep 9 16:48:01 UTC 2008

On Tue, Sep 9, 2008 at 11:50 AM, Neal Whitman <nwhitman at ameritech.net> wrote:
> And returning to the original subject, thanks Jesse and Ben for the earlier
> attestations. I'm now reminding myself not to post these questions late at
> night, when I forget to look at easily available references like the OED
> before sending.

Still, the evolution of the "wear with panache or pride" sense is
intriguing. There's clearly a connection with OED sense 5c, "cause to
move with musical rhythm" (with latent sexual connotations, all the
way back to Trixie Smith's 1922 "My Man Rocks Me with One Steady
Roll"). Objects for this sense can either be people or spaces with
people in them (rock the joint/house/party/casbah). But early hiphop
usage extended the verb to other objects, most notably "the
mic(rophone)" (back to "Rapper's Delight" in 1979: "I'm gonna rock the
mic 'til you can't resist"). "Rock the mic" = "rap admirably" is not
yet reflected in the OED entry for "rock", but I see it as a vital
link to the "wear proudly" sense, since it opened up the possibility
for other rap accoutrements to be taken as objects of the verb --
like, for instance, the Adidas sneakers of Run-DMC and their fans c.

"My Adidas" came out in 1986, and here's a scene from a Run-DMC
concert the following year:

"Then, Run-DMC yelled out, 'Okay, everybody in the house, rock your
Adidas.' On cue, three thousand pairs of Adidas shot in to the air.
(Christopher Vaughn, "Simmons' Rush for Profits," Black Enterprise,
December 1992, 67, quoted by Naomi Klein, _No Logo_, 2000)

So there it seems to be more about displaying than wearing proudly.

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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