Monday, August 15, 2011

Riff and Raff

The New York Times Magazine now has a section called “Riff”—which apparently describes musings on whatever topic the writer of the day has in mind. Recent “riffs” have consisted of innocuous observations about attitudes toward celebrities and about the joys of reading Harry Potter books. But what’s a “riff”? 

One Times writer, Ben Ratliff, has noted an explosion of its use in that newspaper.  He found 57 instances of “riff” in 1990, 131 in 2000, and 221 in 2010. (Aren’t searchable texts wonderful?) 

As originally used, a riff is a “short, repeated phrase in jazz music.”  Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary believes it was first used around 1935 and had its origins as a shortened and altered version of the word refrain.

Today, a riff has broader applications—as a variation on a previous account, or as a succinct or witty comment, or, broadly speaking, a version of something, such as someone’s particular “take” on a topic under discussion. 

Riff is evidently not related to riffraff, meaning “the rabble or the mob.”  This word is a shortening of rifle et rafle, from the Old French riffler and raffler, both of which mean “to plunder”; hence rifle et rafle means every scrap of something, or “the sweepings, the refuse, the rubbish” and, by transference to human beings, “the rabble.” 

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has an elitist background—his second cousin once removed was the Count of Monty Crisco—and that may account for the Bard’s inordinate fear of the hoi polloi, as expressed in this ballad, which he is wont to sing as he accompanies himself on a kazoo:

            The riffraff will grab you,
            If you don’t watch out.
            Then, when they nab you,
            They’ll knock you about.
            They’ll slap you and slam you,
            And hit you with rocks,
            And then they will cram you
            Into a small box.
            Of course they will rob you—
            Every nickel and stitch,
            And then they’ll just fob you
            Off in a ditch.

            They’ll beat and desert you,
            They’re not at all sweet--
            But riffraff won’t hurt you
            Like the bankers on Wall Street!

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