The Steely Dan Dictionary: Your Guide to the Lyrics of Rock’s Most Abstruse Band


Ever wondered what a bodhisattva is? Or how to gaslight somebody? Then this website is for you! You’re looking at an A-Z glossary of over 120 obscure words, people and places — all taken from the lyrics of Steely Dan songs.

The creative genii behind Steely Dan (Walter Becker and Donald Fagen) have long been fond of peppering their lyrics with arcane literary and cultural references, the meaning of which can be murky at best (given the duo’s legendary reticence). After searching in vain for an explanatory lexicon, I decided to create my own — the result being this website, which was first launched in June 2000.

Some examples from the site:

California / Tumbles into the sea / That’ll be the day I go / Back to Annandale
Song: My Old School   Album: Countdown to Ecstasy
Most notable as the location of Bard College, where Donald Fagen and Walter Becker first met while attending college there in the late 1960s

Piaster is also the name of the fractional currency used by several countries today, including Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan and Syria.

Jungle Jim
Crashing the backboard / He’s Jungle Jim again
Song: Glamour Profession   Album:Gaucho

Nickname of Jim Loscutoff (1930-2015), a former basketball player for the Boston Celtics.

Born in San Francisco, Jim’s NBA career lasted from 1955-1964 as a forward on the legendary Bill Russell-led Celtics team, which won 8 consecutive NBA Championships.

Jungle Jim was never a high scorer but had a reputation for scooping up any rebounds Bill Russell didn’t retrieve, hence “crashing the backboard”.

Black Cow
Drink your big black cow / And get out of here
Song: Black Cow   Album:Aja

A type of soda.

Depending on who you ask, a true black cow consists of either Coke or root beer mixed with either milk or ice cream (with optional chocolate sauce). There’s even an alcoholic version, containing Grand Marnier and cold coffee.

Doctor Wu
Are you with me Doctor Wu / Are you really just a shadow / Of the man that I once knew
Song: Doctor Wu   Album: Katy Lied

Dr. Jing Nuan Wu (1933-2002), an acupuncturist and artist formerly based in Washington D.C.

Emigrated from China to the United States at a young age and graduated from Harvard to become a Wall Street venture capitalist, finally setting up a Taoist clinic in Washington in 1973.

Apparently he helped one of the band to overcome drug addiction in the mid-70s, hence the lyrical tribute.



…and one reference that is missing from the site (via

Cobalt Cigarettes
Specific cigarette type smoked by the protagonist of the Steely Dan song “King of the World,” which is about life after a nuclear war. Loosely based on the film “Life in the Year Zero,” the song concerns a lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust spending his time driving through the ruins of his home town and searching the airwaves with his HAM radio for any signs of survivors.
The cigarettes themselves are very deadly (forms of cobalt are highly radioactive) and the smoking of them by the main character is meant as a commentary on his current state and lack of hope. Heard in the far backround of this song is Walter Becker mumbling scary little phrases such as, “I think my face is on fire.”
(Thanks Karen Gottschall and Bob Cyphers)

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mvcoogan
    Feb 18, 2017 @ 11:15:36

    This is a fabulous addition to the Pretzel Logic of music trivia!


  2. Ed Cyphers
    Feb 18, 2017 @ 17:19:05

    Thanks for reading!


  3. mvcoogan
    Feb 25, 2017 @ 19:12:11

    I heard this song today – great guitar solo, a la 25 or 6 to 4, as we discussed earlier! And I read the other day about this song, that it was a spoof of all 70s hipsters who were fawning over Asian type stuff without any idea what the stuff was about.


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