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Riff-raff

Q From Steven Shumak: My mother used to warn me not to associate with riff-raff. What are the origins of this phrase

A To trace this one, we have to start in medieval French. There was then a set expression rifle et rafle. These words are from the verbs rifler, to spoil or strip, and raffler, to carry off. The phrase referred to the plundering of the bodies of the dead on the battlefield and the carrying off of the booty.

The French phrase moved into English in the forms rif and raf or riffe and raf, which meant at first every scrap, from which we may guess that medieval plunderers were extremely thorough. It’s known by at least 1338 (it appears in Mannyng’s Chronicle of English of that date). Later it shifted sense through a series of stages, first referring to one and all, or everybody, and then later taking on the idea of the common people, those of no special social standing. The phrase was abbreviated to riff-raff and can be found in Gregory’s Chronicle of London of about 1470. It seems to have taken some decades longer for it to have gone even further downhill and for it to be associated in particular with the dregs of society. It’s likely that the negative associations of common soldiers ransacking the bodies of the dead coloured the expression even after it had shifted its meaning.

We’re familiar with descendants of both of the original old French words in English, by the way. Riffler is the origin of our riffle in the card-shuffling sense, amongst others, and of rifle, for searching hurriedly through possessions for something, or to steal. It also gave rise to the firearms sense, since a rifle takes its name from the spiral grooves cut in the barrel of such a gun to improve its accuracy; this comes from a different sense of the French word, meaning to graze or scratch. And raffler lent its name to a game played with three dice, perhaps because the winner snatched up or carried off the winnings (we’re not quite sure of the connection). In English the game was called raffle, and the word was only much later applied to another form of gambling, a lottery.

And in the early nineteenth century raffish appeared. This adjective originally referred to somebody who was disreputable or vulgar. Only later did it acquire the undertones it now has of a person who is attractively unconventional. This may have come from the second half of riff-raff, or from raff, which had survived by itself in dialect usage in much the same sense of the lowest class of the population.

Page created 18 Sep. 1999

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Last modified: 18 September 1999.