Most Popular Words in American Popular Songs

Over the decades, the ever-changing vocabulary of popular song reflects cultural shifts in America

Over the decades, the most used words in popular songs have changed as the culture changes. Songwriters of each era often pay attention to the most common words and use them intentionally to tie their songs to the current cultural development or popular craze of the time.

In 1911, for example, successful songwriter Irving Berlin wrote many popular songs using the word “ragtime”, as ragtime was then the hottest new musical genre, as written and performed by black composers such as the legendary Scott Joplin.

Berlin’s song “Alexander’s Ragtime Ball”, for which he wrote both lyrics and music, was the most popular of these and became a standard. Although it references ragtime in the title and lyrics, there is no real ragtime, musically, in the song.

Lamont Dozier of Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland hitmaking team told us that they often use the word “baby” because so many hit songs from the 60s used it. He and his partners went on to write “Baby Love” and “Baby I Need Your Loving”. They started “Where did our love go? with the word repeated three times: “Baby, baby, baby, please don’t leave me” and also begins the chorus with: “Baby, baby, where has our love gone?”

The Beatles, who were usually the only ones to knock Motown songs off the top spot, also used the word “baby” for this reason, as they did “yeah”.

The source of the information on which this essay is based is courtesy of an excellent resource, Wordcounter; the voluminous data they acquired on all types of word usage, including popular songs, is an excellent resource for this and other explorations.

Each decade has its own share of these words, and a quick survey of the most popular, starting in the 1920s, reveals how dramatically American culture has evolved. The word “polka” was often used in the 1940s when this genre was in vogue, just as the word “disco” was often used in the 1970s. 1920s, but rarely since, as in the 90s comes the prevalence of the word “thang”.

Here’s an overview of the most popular words in songs from the 1920s to the present day.

Popular words in popular songs through the decades:

1920s

  • Blues
  • Boyfriend
  • Sweetheart
  • Pink
  • Mum

1930s

1940s

1950s

1960s

1970s

  • Women
  • Disco
  • Oscillate
  • Music
  • To dance

1980s

1990s

2000s

Since 2010

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, by Irving Berlin, 1911.

Dr. Dre, “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang.” excerpt from “Chronicle”, 1992.

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