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Apple Corps to Beatlemania: the language of The Beatles

The Beatles are regarded by many – including me – as the greatest band of all time, and few would doubt the significance of their impact on popular music. Their impact on the lexicon is less clear, though, since using the word ‘na’ 217 times in the lyrics of Hey Jude really doesn’t count. (Incidentally, the OED does include the word na with the meaning ‘than’ or ‘than if’, citing among others J. M. Barrie’s Window in Thrums: “The big ane’s bigger na usual.” – but it is, of course, extremely unlikely that Paul McCartney intended any reference.)

The Beatles’ contribution to the English language goes further than that, thankfully. A quick dip into the OED shows that if John & Paul hadn’t bumped into each other in Woolton on that sunny July day in 1957, we would have been deprived of words such as Beatlesque (“characteristic or reminiscent of The Beatles, their music, or their cultural impact”) and Beatlemania (“addiction to the Beatles and their characteristics; the frenzied behaviour of their admirers.”). Even Beatle itself has an entry (“applied attrib. to the hair-style or other characteristics of ‘The Beatles’ or of their imitators.”)

Grotty moptops?

Anyhow, look more deeply and there are some potential surprises: the word grotty, shortened from grotesque, may have been in use before the Beatles came around, but when George used it in the film A Hard Day’s Night it surely gained traction with Britain’s youth. Indeed, the first citation currently given in the OED is from John Burke’s novelization of the film – possibly a literary masterpiece; I haven’t read it – which was published in 1964. Also in 1964 came what is, at present, the first known use of the word moptop (“a rather shaggy hairstyle popularized by members of the British band the Beatles; a person with such a hairstyle”), which can be chalked up to the Beatles. The earlier, by some 75 years, mop-topped, is a reference to rose trees rather than to Liverpudlian unkemptness.

All you need are puns

You don’t have to stray back too far alphabetically from moptop in the OED before you hit mod (“A young person belonging to a subculture preoccupied with smart, stylish dress, characteristically associated with riding motor scooters and listening to soul music. Freq. contrasted with rocker”), and one of the questions the Beatles occasionally faced in the 1960s was whether they were mods or rockers. “Um, no, I’m a mocker” was Ringo’s reply, again in A Hard Day’s Night, and it was a typical Beatle response: when they weren’t selling hit records, the Beatles enjoyed nothing better than a good pun – or, more often, a bad one, depending on your stance. Even the name of the band was a pun combining references to beat music and fellow entomological group Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

The wordplay wasn’t always sophisticated, but it was a constant in the Beatles’ career: the title of their seventh studio album, Revolver, was a pun (the vinyl record revolves, geddit?), as was the title of their sixth: Rubber Soul. The latter was derived from the phrase “plastic soul”, which Paul McCartney could be heard to mutter after an out-take from recording I’m Down in 1965; the first known use of plastic to mean artificial or superficial is currently dated to only two years earlier in an article by British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, pondering “whether plastic houses might not connote plastic people.”

The influence of paperback writers

When the Beatles decided to free themselves from the ‘men in suits’ in 1968 by setting up their own company – chiefly a record label, but with an optimistic number of subsidiary divisions covering electronics, publishing, films, and retail – they reached for another pun by naming it Apple Corps. Paul in particular was said to be delighted by the cleverness of the joke, repeating it several times to the press to ensure that they had understood, but in the wordplay stakes he was still playing catch-up with John, who had published In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works in 1964 and 1965 respectively. These contain an amalgam of short stories, nonsense poetry, and doodles, with Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll being among the chief – and most lawful – of Lennon’s influences: take, for example, the lines: “He is putting it lithely when he says / Quobble in the Grass, / Strab he down the soddieflays”. John clearly had an admiration for these writers, referring to Lear in Paperback Writer – “It’s based on a novel by a man named Lear” – and basing I Am The Walrus somewhat loosely on Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter. Maintaining the literary theme, this latter song also included an explicit reference to another writer: “Elementary penguins singing Hare Krishna; man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe”. Some things, I suppose, just don’t bear too much analysis.

They gave the world some outstanding music; they gave the world some dubious puns; they helped introduce the Great British public to new and exciting ways of abbreviating the word grotesque. Ladies and gentlemen: The Beatles!