Thursday, May 15, 2008

Riffle or Rifle?

During the second game of the Red Wings/Stars hockey series, an announcer said something like this: “We can rifle through our memory bank.”

To my ear, that sounded wrong. I had learned it years ago as “riffle through our memory bank.”

A quick trip to AHD-4 seemed to confirm my version. To riffle means “to thumb through (the pages of a book, for example).” That image fits searching the “pages” of our memory. To rifle was defined as “to search with intent to steal; to ransack, pillage or plunder.” But the last meaning threw a wrench into the works: “To search vigorously: rifling through my drawers to find matching socks.”

So I went to the online Oxford English Dictionary to see if I could settle the matter. For the most part, it also presented to rifle as an act of assault or robbery on an unwilling victim. But an obsolete 16th century meaning--“to examine or investigate thoroughly”--seems to have had a descendant: “To make a vigorous search through. ‘Visitors from all over the world rifle through the tweeds and tartans.’” [1978 Vogue Feb. 88/2]

To riffle is presented as “to thumb or leaf through,” used also in a figurative way. It’s what we do when we’re trying to find a particular passage in a previously-read book, or when we are flipping though our memory. “I was riffling through these morbid thoughts.” [1962 Listener 22 Nov. 845/2]

Without a more definitive source, I am left with the feeling that the amount of vigor used when searching your memory is the deciding factor. If your search is vigorous and agitated, you are rifling; if you are calm and methodical, you are riffling.

Or is this a distinction without a difference?


There’s probably no connection, but riffle is also the name of a feature of coldwater streams--a shallow place where water runs fast over obstructions such as rocks, thus producing a broken water surface where trout can hide and feed.


: Washington State University

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