“Words of nuance, words of skill/Words of romance are a thrill/Words are stupid, words are fun/Words can put you on the run…”
What are words worth? So asked pop band Tom Tom Club in their 1981 hit, Wordy Rappinghood.
For some stars, a big vocabulary is priceless. Singer-songwriters from Patti Smith to Nick Cave have built careers with songs whose rich language is as important as the music. We wondered if today’s chart-toppers used such a diverse word set.
We already know that some Hip Hop artists have access to a breathtaking array of expressions. But what about other contemporary stars?
WordTips, the famous word unscrambler, counted the words used by 100 modern stars and the 100 greatest singers of all time and added up the number of unique words they used per 1,000. For example, Patti Smith used 2,669 different words across a total word count of 12,291, giving a score of 217/1000.
Our first interactive reveals which singers are ahead of the pack when it comes to using lots of different words. Click the tab to switch between Modern Stars, Legends, or all-at-once.
Writing a pop song is a different art to writing a pharmaceutical catalog – the best songsmiths, like the best Scrabble players, know when to go long and when to go short. As a poet and rock star, you might expect Patti Smith to write grandiloquent lyrics, but just look at her most famous line: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” Smith’s skill is to evoke biblical imagery with everyday words, to create passionate drama with the quietest scenes.
Smith is joined by Joni Mitchell and Bjork in a triumvirate of female legends with the biggest vocabularies in our study. Modern stars follow in dribs and drabs, accounting for only 15 of the all-time top 50.
The top modern star is Billie Eilish, whose dissections of Gen Z love and morality are tailor-made for bedroom headphone listening. Eilish is celebrated for her fan theory-bait lyrics, and on headphones she can’t hide behind word count cheats like, “You were the one thing in my way/My way, oh way, oh way, oh way.”
The top of the vocabulary table is dominated by older legends, but the clusters in our visualizations reveal the overall difference is not so big. The average vocab for legends is 124 unique words per 1,000 against 107 for modern stars. The groups have an almost identical number of singers with vocabularies of 100+.
The average for modern stars is dragged down because a much higher proportion of modern stars have songwriter credits to their name, and many of them have <100 vocabs. Perhaps today’s pop stars have the confidence to write their own songs regardless of literary finesse. While in the old days, vocal talents would hire professional songwriters to fill in the gaps.
The word games that pop stars play deceive us into what they’re actually doing. Are you surprised to find confessed ‘nonsense lyricist’ Thom Yorke uses less variety than Country & Western hero Hank Williams? Or to find that Lou Reed and Bob Dylan used smaller vocabularies than Rod Stewart?
In fact, Dylan used 12,285 words vs. 5,236 for Rod Stewart, but divided across his massive back catalog, Dylan has a lower rate per song.
Likewise, Thom Yorke vs. Hank Williams – Yorke has written more than four times as many songs as Hank and used more than twice as many unique words in total. But song-for-song, Hank uses more variety. Yorke’s songs are often built around catchy idioms made weird by repetition. Williams wrote at least a dozen songs with variations of ‘lonesome’ in the title, so he had to find new ways to sing about being blue again and again.
Pop and rock lyrics have always been repetitive. Just look how low John Lennon’s vocabulary was – The Beatles sang over the top of screaming teenagers. For an artist like Justin Bieber, who has a vocabulary quotient of just 80, using a wide range of words would be an inefficient use of his energy.
Female songwriters outnumber the men in the top 10 modern stars. Arch businessman and manipulator Ed Sheeran is a big hitter with a vocabulary of 111/1000, but it’s probably part of his SEO strategy. Three of Sheeran’s songs are among the 20 songs with the most unique words.
Finally, we added up the total number of unique words our stars used across their careers. The top 10 are all golden oldies, as you would expect (living legend Pharrell Williams is the top modern star and the 12th overall in terms of total vocabulary). Male songwriters dominate this list, although this is largely due to the sheer number of songs the men in our study have written. Women may be better at words but still face substantial barriers to having a long, prolific career.
But who knows the most words? Bob Dylan. (As this very pretty but incomprehensible data viz attests.) A special mention goes to number two, Prince, with the highest total word count in our study (142,460 across 479 songs). Not only did Prince know his “I would die 4 u” from his “if u want me 2,” he expanded the pop world’s vocabulary by inventing words like Superfunkycalifragisexy and Hundalasiliah.
A precise and evocative pop lyric can hit you like nothing else on Earth. But the language of pop music obeys its own laws, and bigger isn’t always better.
“A ram sam sam, a ram sam sam/Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam,” as the backing lyrics to Wordy Rappinghood go. And who could say it better?
We can’t say goodbye without sharing this Spotify playlist, which compiles the 20 songs with the most unique words in our study. The playlist is dominated by all-time great singer-storytellers like Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. Enjoy!
To count the number of words and unique words used by each singer, lyrics for all their self-penned songs were pulled using Genius API. Only singers with at least 25 songs where they had writing credits were included.
We then used a language-processing algorithm called "tokenization" to identify the number of unique words across the corpus of each singers’ discography. In total, 17,667 songs written by 156 singers were analyzed.
For singers that are/were part of bands, both their solo tracks and the songs performed by their bands were analyzed for writing credits.
Songs with duplicate names, remixes, live versions of studio-recorded songs, etc., have all been removed from the dataset, along with unreleased albums and tracks.
Data was collected in May 2021.