Made Up Words in Song Lyrics… and Why They Work

2018-11-08 Essay


by Alec Plowman

Sometimes, when writing a song, it’s hard to find the exact word to convey what you’re feeling.

For some, that means rifling through the rhyming dictionary. For others, it means going back and rejigging the lyric to change the meaning.

There are some brave souls, though, that are not beholden to the mere constraints of established language to express their emotions, oh no! Not content with the limits of the existing vernacular, these pioneers of advanced vocabulary are more than happy to invent their own, dropping made up words into songs like there’s no tomorrow.

Some of these creations are mad. Some are downright awful. But then there are those that are totally brilliant. Today, we’re taking a look at some made-up lyric gems, and why exactly they worked in the context of the song.

Destiny’s Child – “Bootylicious”

“I don't think you ready for this jelly
I don't think you ready for this jelly
I don't think you ready for this
'Cause my body too bootylicious for yo babe”

An undisputed banger from Destiny’s Child kicks this list off, and, as you’ve no doubt realised, you won’t be finding “bootylicious” in Webster’s dictionary any time soon.

But so what? This portmanteau of “booty” and “delicious” is the perfect fit for the song – and for the group’s ethos. “My body too delicious,” the logical non-made-up word version of the line is kind of dull.

“Bootylicious,” on the other hand, is just ridiculous enough to catch the listener’s attention (“hang on, did they say bootylicious?”) but sassy and sexy enough to completely chime with the sentiments of the song.

Webster’s might not recognize “Bootylicious,” but millennials who grew up with the song certainly do. That’s testament to a made-up word done right.

Slayer – “Repentless”

“…No looking back, no regrets, no apologies
What you get is what you see
Live fast, on high
Repentless, let it ride…”

Thrash metal legends Slayer were such big fans of the word “Repentless,” it became the title of their 12th studio album and its lead single in 2015. Once again, we’re in portmanteau territory here, combining the words “relentless” and “unrepentant.” This time, however, the blending of words was entirely unintentional. As songwriter Kerry King told an interviewer in 2015, he made the word up by accident:

"I made [the word] up. I didn't realize I made it up. I mean, it seemed like a word to me, and then I looked it up and it wasn't there. [Laughs] To me, 'repentless,' you know, is, basically, having no regrets, not looking back and saying, 'I wish I should have done things differently.' 'Repentless' is meaning I have no reason to repent."

“Repentless” was fluke, but an entirely brilliant one. Slayer’s are known for their breakneck speed and uncompromising attitude.

In fact, the song is an affirmation of that ethos. In both lyrics and music, the track is relentlessly unrepentant. In true Slayer fashion, the word “Repentless” simply speeds up that sentiment.

Phil Collins – “Sussudio”

“Ah if she called me I'd be there
I'd come running anywhere
She's all I need, all my life
I feel so good if I just say the word
Su-Su-Sussudio, just say the word
Oh Su-Su-Sussudio”

What does “sussudio” mean? No one knows. Not even Phil Collins, who wrote the song and gave it the title. The story goes that Collins was laying down ideas for the track – soon to become the opener of his third studio album, “No Jacket Required” – and found himself singing the nonsense lyric over the chorus. Originally, he intended it as a placeholder for a different word. But, as the man himself notes:

"So I kinda knew I had to find something else for that word, then I went back and tried to find another word that scanned as well as 'sussudio,' and I couldn't find one, so I went back to 'sussudio'"

That Phil Collins literally couldn’t find the words worked out in the song’s favour. A track about a crush Collins had on a girl during his school years, it fits with the theme of the song that he doesn’t know how to express his newfound feelings. In that sense, “sussudio” epitomises the confusion and angst of stirring teenage emotions, and, despite not actually meaning anything, is strangely evocative. That was certainly the case for listeners. Charting at #1 in the Billboard Hot 100, “Sussudio” remains one of Collins’ signature songs to this day.

The moral of these stories? Your song lyrics don’t always have to exist within the confines of the dictionary. Made-up lyrics have their place, and can sometimes make a song more memorable than using established words. But, you need to use them with purpose. So put some thought into those portmanteaus and deploy your nonsense words with intent. When done right, it could be the secret to making your lyrics shine.