Can You Guess the Meaning of These Words Found in Beatles Songs?

By: Brittany Rowland
Image: Wiki Commons by United Press International, photographer unknown

About This Quiz

From the moment screaming fans greeted the Beatles at JFK International Airport on February 7, 1964, rock music has never been the same. The Beatles came to the U.S. at a critical time in history, just months after the assassination of President Kennedy. And their exuberant personalities, suggestive lyrics and mop-top haircuts immediately appealed to youngsters while puzzling or irritating parents.

Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were at the forefront of the British Invasion, a period in the early 1960s when Americans became obsessed with British pop music and culture. The Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Animals and Led Zeppelin would also make the leap across the pond to become radio and TV sensations.

One factor that set the Beatles apart was their creative use of cryptic lyrics. Fans soon started analyzing — and overanalyzing — the lyrics, looking for hidden meanings and even playing tracks backward to find supposedly subliminal messages. In truth, the Beatles were inspired by childhood memories, books they read and other everyday experiences. But because they came from Liverpool, some of the words they used sounded exotic and mysterious to American listeners.

So don't let it be! Test your Beatles knowledge with this quiz and see how many words you can define. We promise it won't be a hard day's night, and you can always ask for help!

"Eleanor Rigby" mentions Father McKenzie "darning his socks in the night." What does "darning" mean?

We suppose darning your socks at night is something lonely people would do. While Beatles fans visit a tombstone for Eleanor Rigby, Paul McCartney maintains that he simply came up with the name.

What does "boatswain" mean, as it appears in "Yellow Submarine"?

The cheerful "Yellow Submarine" song features Ringo singing the lead vocals. And although fans have tried to read special meaning into it, the Beatles always insisted it was a simple children's song.

The Beatles song "Tomorrow Never Knows" tells us to "surrender to the void." What does "void" mean?

"Tomorrow Never Knows" is reportedly about John Lennon's experiments with LSD. The song uses Indian instruments like the sitar and the tanpura to create a psychedelic listening experience!

In "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the Beatles sing, "It's certainly a thrill." What do they mean by "thrill"?

We still get a thrill listening to all of "Sgt. Pepper's." Many a Beatles fan has spent a great deal of time poring over the cover art. Bonus points if you can name some of the famous people!

What do the Beatles mean by "out of key" in "With a Little Help From My Friends"?

No, Ringo, we wouldn't walk out on you, no matter how you sang! And we'll lend you our ears anytime. Joe Cocker's cover of this song was also a hit and appeared as the theme song for "Wonder Years."

"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" mentions a "girl with kaleidoscope eyes." What is a "kaleidoscope"?

John Lennon always denied that the song's title came from LSD. Instead, he said that his young son Julian showed him a picture he'd drawn of his friend Lucy — in the sky with diamonds — art inspiring art.

What does "cruel" mean, as it appears in "Getting Better"?

Lennon and McCartney co-wrote this "Sgt. Pepper's" song, which balances optimism and pessimism. Lennon refers to his history of abusive relationships in the lyrics with surprising candidness.

In "What's the New Mary Jane," someone eats "twelve chapattis and cream." "Chapattis" are a type of what?

Chapatti is an Indian flatbread, also known as pulkha or roti, resembling a pancake. Maybe Mary Jane had a "pain at the party" because she ate 12 of them! This song appeared on "Anthology 3."

"Something inside that was always denied" is a line from "She's Leaving Home." What does "denied" mean?

McCartney wrote "She's Leaving Home" for "Sgt. Pepper's" based on a newspaper story of a young girl who ran away with her boyfriend. It was Lennon's idea to sustain the notes in the chorus.

In "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," the Beatles sing about "plasticine porters." What is "plasticine"?

"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" contains a lot of vivid, fanciful imagery that Lennon attributed to his enjoying "Alice in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll. The plasticine porters have "looking glass ties," meaning they are like mirrors.

The Beatles sing of a "hogshead of real fire" in "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" What is a "hogshead"?

"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" advertises a circus, and that's because Lennon took most of the lyrics from an old circus poster. We're sure it was quite a sight to see Henry the Horse waltzing!

The Beatles song "Within You Without You" mentions "a wall of illusion." What does "illusion" mean?

George Harrison wrote "Within You Without You" after hanging out in India with the sitar player Ravi Shankar. The song's spiritual lyrics reflect Harrison's growing interest in Hinduism.

"When I'm Sixty-Four" uses the word "scrimp," which means what?

Although "When I'm Sixty-Four" appeared on the Beatles' eighth studio album, "Sgt. Pepper's," McCartney actually wrote it in his teens, when he and the Beatles played nightclubs in Liverpool.

"May I inquire discreetly," the Beatles sing in "Lovely Rita." What does "discreetly" mean?

The lighthearted "Lovely Rita" describes the singer's date with a meter maid. Although the song was released back in 1967, no Beatle sang it live until McCartney performed the song on his 2013 tour.

Mr. H. will do "ten summersets" in "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" But what are "summersets"?

"Summerset" is a variation of "somersault." Since Lennon took most of the lyrics for this song from an 1800s circus poster, it makes sense that he would use the old-fashioned spelling of this word.

"Yellow matter custard" appears in "I Am the Walrus." What is "custard"?

Custard is a dessert made from milk, egg and sugar — the filling in Boston cream pies. Sounds good, right? It seems somewhat less appealing in the song when it's "dripping from a dead dog's eye."

"Penny Lane" refers to a "mac," which is what?

"Mac" is short for "Mackintosh," a British word for a raincoat. So yes, we'd agree it's "very strange" for a person to never wear one in the pouring rain. The song features a piccolo trumpet solo.

"Back in the U.S.S.R." mentions "balalaikas," which are what?

McCartney wrote this song as a send-up of Chuck Berry's "Back in the U.S.A." Mike Love of the Beach Boys heard McCartney playing it and suggested adding the part about the Russian girls.

What is a "dovetail," which is a word from "Glass Onion"?

Lennon apparently wanted to toy with fans who looked for hidden messages in all the Beatles' lyrics. In 1968 they got to unpeel "Glass Onion," a song that alludes to several previous Beatles songs.

In "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," Desmond takes a "trolley." What is a "trolley"?

There was some contention between McCartney and musician Jimmy Scott over the phrase in the title. Scott wanted a writing credit because he frequently used the expression in his performances.

A "roundabout," which is mentioned in "Penny Lane," is what?

The dreamy, cheerful "Penny Lane" was a single released with "Strawberry Fields Forever." It describes the denizens of Penny Lane, including a nurse standing in a roundabout selling poppies.

The Beatles use the word "fierce" in "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill." What does "fierce" mean?

"The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" was notable for including Yoko Ono's vocals. According to Lennon, he wrote the song in mockery of a man the Beatles met at a spiritual retreat in India.

"Happiness Is a Warm Gun" features a man with "hobnail boots." What are hobnail boots?

According to biographers, "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" was each of the bandmember's favorite song from "The Beatles" (or the White Album). Lennon took the title from an American Rifleman magazine article.

In "I'm So Tired," the Beatles refer to Sir Walter Raleigh as "a stupid git." What is a "git"?

While in India meditating with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Lennon had trouble sleeping and also missed Yoko Ono. So he wrote this song, which anyone who's had some sleepless nights can relate to.

In "Rocky Raccoon," the characters meet at a "hoedown," which is what?

This Beatles song inspired the Marvel character Rocket Raccoon, one of the Guardians of the Galaxy. The record producer George Martin played the piano honky-tonk style for the song.

"Honey Pie" has the line "driving me frantic." What does "frantic" mean?

The Beatles recorded "Honey Pie," one of the songs for the White Album, to sound like a music hall performance, which was similar to American vaudeville. The Beatles never performed it live.

In "Cry Baby Cry," the Beatles sing, "Put on specially by the children for a lark." What is a "lark"?

John Lennon wrote "Cry Baby Cry" as a sort of adult nursery rhyme. It features the King of Marigold, the Queen and the Duchess of Kircaldy having a seance, and the children playing a trick on them.

"You Never Give Me Your Money" mentions a "lorry," which is what?

The British use the word "lorry" to describe a truck that carries cargo. "You Never Give Me Your Money" describes the Beatles' troubles while recording "Abbey Road" and is part of a medley.

Mean Mr. Mustard shouts out something "obscene." What does this word mean?

Mr. Mustard's sister was at first named Shirley, but the Beatles changed it to Pam to better connect it to the next song in the medley, "Polythene Pam." Lennon was inspired by a story he'd read about a miser.

"Well, you can radiate everything you are" is one of the lines from "Dig a Pony." What does "radiate" mean?

The Beatles performed "Dig a Pony" at a rooftop concert on January 30, 1969, and this version appeared on the "Let It Be" album. Lennon was later critical of the song and its nonsense lyrics.

In "Drive My Car," the Beatles sing, "I told the girl that my prospects were good." What are "prospects"?

"Drive My Car" opened the 1965 album "Rubber Soul." Lennon and McCartney struggled with the lyrics until they came up with the chorus, at which point the song came together.

"Marmalade skies" appear in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." This is odd, because "marmalade" is what?

Lennon was frequently critical of his songs years after they were recorded. In a 1980 interview, he expressed a wish to re-record "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and other songs of that period.

"Your voice is soothing, but the words aren't clear" is a line in "I'm Looking Through You." What does "soothing" mean?

McCartney wrote "I'm Looking Through You," "We Can Work It Out" and "You Won't See Me" in response to arguments he had with his then-girlfriend, Jane Asher. They broke up in 1968.

"Thoughts meander" in "Across the Universe." Do you know what "meander" means?

Lennon used a Sanskrit phrase in the chorus, "Jai guru deva om," which means "Victory to God divine." He was inspired by a visit with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru who taught him meditation.

Beatles fans love the inspirational "Blackbird." In British slang, a "bird" is what?

McCartney wrote "Blackbird" as a message of hope to people in the United States struggling through the civil rights movement. The blackbird was an apt symbol because it can fly to freedom.

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