Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The ten best single words in Steely Dan's songs

Chuck Berry prided himself on being able to use words you didn’t often find in pop songs. So did Bob Dylan. And Joni Mitchell.

But nobody did it better than Steely Dan.

In memory of Walter Becker I launched a Twitter search for the best single words used in their lyrics.

I’m not counting actual place names like Guadalajara and Hackensack; nor made-up places like the Custerdome.

I’m not using real people’s names like Cathy Berberian or Thelonius.

These are the ten best single words in Steely Dan lyrics, as chosen by lots of people on Twitter and put into order by me. Why not? It's my blog.

  • “Squonk” in “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”
  • “Oleanders” in “My Old School”
  • “Scrapple” from “Josie”
  • “Kirchwasser” from “Babylon Sisters"
  • “Merengue” from "Haitian Divorce"
  • “Skeevy” from “Cousin Dupree"
  • “Bodhisattva” from “Bodhisattva”
  • “Spoor” from “Rose Darling"
  • “Dolly” (as a verb!) in “Haitian Divorce”
  • These are all great suggestions but my winner is still “piastre” in “Doctor Wu”. 

There’s lots of fascinating reading about references in Steely Dan songs in the fabulous Steely Dan Dictionary.


  1. Thanks, David. This is all new to me. Yes, at 62 years of age, I am still excited by something new. Pathetic, isn't it? Love Squonk.

  2. David, have you covered the origin of the name "Steely Dan?"

  3. Excellent idea and I have no arguments with this list. The Steely Dan vocabulary is very special and you could probably have done further sub-categories such as car names, place names, food & drink, etc. For those interested in the Dan vocabulary, this is a very good resource

  4. Really good! But points to Brian Ferry for true horticultural insoicience for putting "Rhododendron" into a song, and to Chuck Berry for giving classical statuary an equally surprising rock plinth, referencing a comic version of the Venus de Milo in Brown eyed handsome man. It's always about context and expectations, so less surprising once the Steely Dan shtick has been established.

  5. Loved their product placement as well - Dean & Deluca,, Cuervo gold, Cherefield Kings etc

  6. Squonk also a Genesis song. Any connection?

    1. One and the same. A mythical creature that dissolves in a pool of its own tears ("have you seen a squonk's tears?") when cornered.

  7. I saw Steely Dan live at Hammersmith 10 years ago. It was the 30th anniversary of Aja and they played the whole thing immaculately, plus other numbers mainly from that era of the band. Nothing from Pretzel Logic or the Royal Scam unfortunately, but you can't have everything. They encored with My Old School which was sung by pretty much the whole crowd. A memorable night.

    Now, a question. There's a tribute band called Nearly Dan. I thought the very idea was crazy, but a few YouTube clips suggest that they might be worth seeing. I'd be interested to hear if you know anything about them

    1. Like Brian below I can say that IMO Nearly Dan are sensational. We saw them last year in Bath and are going again this year. See their Facebook page for clips and posts from fans.

  8. Missing from this list is the elusively-defined 'Hooterie' from my favourite Dan song 'West of Hollywood', with its great Chris Potter sax solo.

    I was eventually able to track down a definition at feverdreamswhatsmykarma, which bills itself as a "very unofficial Steely Dan lyric discussion page" and includes the following exchange:

    4) What is "Hooterie"?

    A gathering of freaky, wonderfully whacked, Dan heads.....also known on as Danfest

    I've probably attended quite a few hooteries and not even known it.

  9. I always took Hooterie to be some sort of play on Hooters, the well-known chain of eating places favoured by Michael Scott in "The Office".
    Re: Nearly Dan. All tribute bands who've been doing it for more than a couple of years are as good as if not better than the band they're paying tribute to.

  10. Nearly Dan are superb and well worth seeing. I went to the concert with some trepidation re "tribute band" issues but had a truly excellent evening. Tremendous musicians.

  11. How about some excellent metaphor... as in, the entire lyric of "West of Hollywood."