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Urban Dictionary example:

"you can have the bed, I'll rock the couch"

Earliest example I can think of:

RUN D.M.C. "It's Tricky" -- "It's tricky to rock a rhyme . . . "

Now it seems pervasive. Is there something else that put it on the map or did it just take 25+ years to slowly filter into the mainstream from Ebonics (unlike, e.g., "Word Up," which seems to have risen and fallen over the same period).

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3 Answers 3

Firstly, while I see what you're getting at, I don't think rock is a synonym for create or utilize in the phrase rock a rhyme or rock the bells. I think a more appropriate synonym is excel at or rule. I think this sense is also what we mean by "rocking the couch." — That couch is mine, I'm totally have the best sleep of my life on that couch, you have the bed, no problem!

This is the same sense as you rock! Yes, I ROCK THAT COUCH. OK, I'm being a bit facetious here, but you see why those two examples cited here as "origins" don't connect exactly with the rock the couch meaning.

It's hard to pin down when this sense of rock became to mean what you're trying to express, because there is no hard line separating that sense from the older sense. To rock has meant to dance/create music/party/excel for a long time. When can the "new" sense be completely extracted from the "old" usage, as the word gradually becomes used in nearly every situation? (qv. "nice")

Ultimately, this meaning of rock has its origins in the phrase rock and roll, coming from a euphemistic verb phrase common among Black speakers of english meaning "to have sex". (Move back and forth.) This hidden meaning appeared in song titles and dance styles since the early 1930s. Which gives, of course, a whole new meaning to the phrase I rock the couch.

I found this quote in an article about Scotty Morris in the August 1988 issue of SPIN:

A neighborhood basketball star, he called himself La Rock because the player who scored the most points in a game was said to have rocked it, rocked the party.

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Interesting. I agree that a prominent current usage is very close to "I will [facetiously] excel as a wearer of this red sweater!" (which is what most white Americans my age -- late 30's would mean by it) whereas for younger folks I think the irony has slowly faded into self-esteemed contentment about legitimately "rocking" every outfit every day. –  Del Aug 15 '11 at 20:50
    
p.s. on the basketball quote in particular, that's tricky because a basketball, unlike other balls, is a "rock." I well remember the day that one of the few black members of my high school tennis team admonished one of the white players for calling tennis balls "rocks"! (He suggested that they could at most be called "stones".) –  Del Aug 15 '11 at 20:57
    
+1 - One could argue that "rock" has been used in this sense since the '50's when the term first came into common use in association with music (and quite likely as a euphemism for sex). –  T.E.D. Aug 15 '11 at 21:06
    
Yeah, but I still think there's evolution over time . . . 20 years ago you either rocked your driver's ed test or you didn't . . . 60 years ago "rocking around the clock" was a special occasion, etc. Today . . . baby you're a firework! My adoptive 12 year old sister "rocks" most every quotidian fashion/life choice she makes . . . –  Del Aug 15 '11 at 21:13
    
Put another way, "I'm going to rock Driver's Ed" can now simply mean, "I'm going to take Driver's Ed [instead of English]" –  Del Aug 15 '11 at 21:33

There is an earlier example, also from 80's rap which I am pretty sure got the ball rolling and introduced a new definition of the word into the mainstream.

LL Cool J came out with "Rock the Bells" in 1985, the third single from his debut album Radio in 1985, two years before Run D.M.C. released Raising Hell, off which "It's Tricky" was the third single.

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1  
I don't think this can be a definitive answer. Rock the bells could be quite literal in that song in the sense of making noise/music with or shaking violently which has been a meaning of rock for quite a while longer. –  ghoppe Aug 15 '11 at 19:46
    
Thanks, good stuff! Interesting in that whereas the meaning of "word up" didn't change much as it quickly went mainstream it seems like there's been a long slow progression from rock in the context of "create (non-rock) music" to "Should I rock the red sweater or the blue one"? (Not that color choice was insignificant to 80's rappers!) –  Del Aug 15 '11 at 19:46
    
@ghoppe - Agreed. This isn't so different from 1983's Rock You Like a Hurricane from the Scorpions, or even 1955's Rock Around the Clock. The term was always a double-entendre, so by definition it had non-musical meanings. –  T.E.D. Aug 15 '11 at 21:13

This usage of the work 'rock' has quite a history behind it.

The original use of the work 'rock' (in this sense) came from 'rock and roll'.

At this point, he phrase 'rock and roll' had a very physical, even sexual meaning. It refereed to the way that people moved while listening to the music.

Over time, the term 'rock' evolved to mean the ability for a musician (or anyone else) to inspire the 'rock and roll' feeling in someone.

  • Those Guys Rock!

As the term became part of every day informal slang, it started to be used to refer to a job done well. I was often used to replace another verb.

  • You really rocked the potato salad.

After years of over use, the term simply became a cool way to reefer to doing anything, especially if the activity was not very attractive. In this case, the word 'rock' was used to impart a scene of acceptance, attractiveness or confidence. It's intended to raise spirits and improve moral by attaching a bit of the 'rock and roll' feeling to something unrelated.

  • I'm going to rock these chores!
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