Q: On a recent trip to California, a motel desk clerk asked us: “Are we done here?” When we replied, “Yes,” he said, “Let’s rock ’n’ roll.” How did this phrase come to mean “Let’s get moving”? I’ve even heard it used as a statement of approval.
A: For more than 30 years, the verb “rock-and-roll” (also spelled “rock ’n’ roll”) has been used in the sense of “get moving” or “get started.”
So that desk clerk meant “Let’s get on with checking you out and preparing your bill” (or words to that effect).
The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest published example for this use of the verb “rock-and-roll” (which it hyphenates) is from the April 2, 1980, issue of the Washington Post: “It’s time to rock and roll. The town is ours.”
A few years later, in 1984, this example appeared in the New York Times: “Mittleman looked down at his mended foot, slipped on a pair of shoes borrowed from Record and said, ‘I’m ready to rock and roll.’ ”
Later the phrase started showing up in books, as in these two OED citations:
“Looks like we’re on, lads. Be ready to rock and roll at eleven-thirty!” (From Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, 1997.)
“He uncapped a fountain pen, and took out a yellow legal pad. ‘Okay, Mrs. Chatterjee, let’s rock and roll.’ ” (From Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Desirable Daughters, 2002.)
The OED describes “rock-and-roll” here as a slang usage meaning “to get going, begin, esp. with vigour and energy.” The phrase occurs “chiefly” in the phrases “let’s rock and roll” and “ready to rock and roll,” Oxford adds.
As it happens, a shorter version, “rock”—also defined as “to get going, begin, esp. with vigour and energy”—was recorded as early as the mid-’60s, the OED says.
This version also appears “chiefly” in the expressions “let’s rock” and “ready to rock,” according to the dictionary.
The OED’s earliest citation for this use of “rock” is from a football story in the Oct. 17, 1966, issue of the Los Angeles Times: “All the Bruins, as a matter of fact, should be back and ready to rock with the Bears.”
This more recent example is from Wired magazine in 2000: “The infrastructure is still in place, future-proofed and ready to rock.”
The daddy of these usages, born in the USA in the 1950s, is the verb “rock-and-roll,” defined in the OED as “to dance to or play rock-and-roll music.”
And the granddaddy is the noun phrase “rock ’n’ roll” (as Oxford spells it), whose origins as a musical term aren’t so easy to pin down. In its earliest uses, it can probably be traced to black American music between World Wars I and II.
Here we need to back up a bit to point out that individually, the verbs “rock” and “roll” are extremely old.
The OED says “rock” (meaning “to move to and fro in a gentle and soothing manner”) was recorded in late Old English, and “roll” (“to move with a swaying motion”) in Middle English. So they’re pushing a thousand years old.
The expression “rock ’n’ roll,” the OED says, originated “probably with reference to the motion of the body when dancing.”
But it adds: “It is possible that there may originally also have been some allusion to uses of each verb as euphemisms for sexual intercourse.”
The journalist and rock historian Nick Tosches is more positive on this note, saying the two words have long had sexual connotations. In Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ’n’ Roll (1977), Tosches writes:
“An early nineteenth-century sea chanty included the line, ‘Oh do, me Johnny Bowker, come rock ’n’ roll me over.’ A lyric found in the ceremonial Fire Dance of Florida’s obeah worshipers was ‘Bimini gal is a rocker and a roller.’ ”
In African-American blues recordings, “rock” and “roll” began to proliferate in the 1920s. Both Tosches and the OED cite a 1922 recording by the blues singer Trixie Smith of the song “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll).”
Similar usages, especially in African-American music, appeared in the later ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s.
“Rock” in this sense, the OED says, meant both “to have sexual intercourse with” and “to dance with.”
The OED says the early use of “rock ’n’ roll,” in reference to the hot, rhythmic music of the prewar years, meant “a vigorous and compelling rhythm with a strong beat, as in jazz, swing, or rhythm and blues music; (also) music featuring such a rhythm; lively dance music.”
Its two earliest citations for this early sense of “rock ’n’ roll” are from 1938.
This one is from a song, “Rock It for Me,” written by the twin sisters Kay and Sue Werner, and recorded by Ella Fitzgerald:
“It’s true that once upon a time, / The op’ra was the thing, / But today the rage is rhythm and rhyme, / So won’t you satisfy my soul with a rock an’ roll.”
And this example is from a photo caption that appeared in the New York Times in 1938: “ ‘Rock-and-Roll’ men. Band leaders Benny Goodman (left) and Gene Krupa—Their likes are not to be heard abroad.”
Some time in the early 1950s, the OED says, the meaning of “rock ’n’ roll” shifted and came to mean a new kind of music.
The modern sense of the phrase, according to the OED, was “popularized by disc jockey Alan Freed, who broadcast rhythm and blues music to a multiracial audience from 1951, and later promoted various dances and concerts featuring rhythm and blues performers.”
As the OED explains, Freed’s “1953 ‘Biggest Rhythm and Blues Show’ tour is often regarded as the first major rock ’n’ roll tour, although many of the performers featured would now typically be classified as rhythm and blues vocalists. From this time, the term rock ’n’ roll became popular with white audiences, esp. teenagers.”
Here’s an OED citation from Billboard magazine in 1954: “Freed is now calling his program the ‘Rock and Roll Show.’ ”
Of course, both “rock and roll” and “rock” have taken on whole new meanings in recent generations.
As you mention, the adjective “rock and roll” is now used in the affirmative—it means “cool,” more or less, a usage the OED first records in 1976.
This is an example that Oxford quotes from Esquire magazine in 2008: “Tea is so rock’n’roll these days; according to one rumour, Led Zep’s rider for the O2 gig asked for nothing more than a decent brew of English Breakfast.”
And since the late 1960s, the OED says, to “rock” has meant “to be full of energy, life, and excitement; to be excellent.”
Oxford’s earliest citation is from an advertisement in a 1969 issue of the Times-Bulletin newspaper (Van Wert, Ohio): “Bored? Uptight? In a box? Weekend bowling really rocks!”
[Update, Nov. 11, 2013: A couple of readers pointed out that “let’s roll” is used in the same way as “let’s rock” (let’s get moving), and that the expression took on a special significance for Americans after Sept. 11, 2001. During the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 over Pennsylvania, Todd Beamer and other passengers worked out a plan to overcome the hijackers and regain control of the plane. Beamer’s last words, overheard on an open phone line, were “Are you guys ready? OK, let’s roll.” The OED says the use of “roll” to mean get started, get moving, or take action dates back to 1931.]
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