Daily Archives: October 3, 2011


It’s quite something how some people get riled up about language. (Some people? I’ll bet most people have some usage or other they hate.) An interesting point of general consistency is that these hate-ins usually lack a defensible basis. (See “When an ‘error’ isn’t” for a rundown of some popular bugbears that aren’t the bogeymen they’re made out to be.)

The basis they often do draw on is amusingly opposite to a common trend in some other areas of human behaviour, where change is seen as good: people want to have the latest clothes, the latest electronics, et cetera. Stirring the waters is desirable. And indeed there are fads in language, too, and people may be mocked for using out-of-fashion words. But when it comes to hobby horses, it’s typically a conservative impulse that motivates it – albeit often a misguided one that actually muddies the waters rather than clarifying them. A person learns about some “original” form and decidnes that anyone who uses some changed version is an annoying cockroach and that the usage is a linguistic weed, a dandelion on the lawn of the language, and must be eradicated.

Of course, when talking of language, “original” is nearly always nonsense talk, since there is almost always a form prior to the one cited, and a form prior to that, and it’s turtles all the way down. And, for that matter, change is central to the nature of language. A language that has stopped changing is dead. But typically those calling on some “purer” form are off on some important fact anyway. I am reminded of a fellow student at the University of Calgary (back in about 1986) who “informed” me that Calgary wasn’t really a city because it didn’t have a cathedral. This was based on the idea that in medieval times a city was a city because it had a cathedral. But that was not the first or last definition of a city, and anyway Calgary does – and did – have a cathedral.

But if I seem to have produced a bit of a troubled or turbid tasting here, let me pour some oil on the waters to address what one may see as a mixed-up lie about the word rile. I will quote from the alphaDictionary “What’s the Good Word?” email I got today:

First, let me get this off my chest: “Nothing roils me more than hearing someone pronounce roil [rail] or seeing it spelled rile.” Now, here is a quaint Southernism I just concocted to remind us of the original meaning of today’s verb: “Don’t roil the water where you may have to drink.” It also serves to demonstrate that not all Southerners misspell this verb rile.

It is true that rile is most likely a variant form of roil, which means “make turbid, stir up”, with reference to water. However, it is not some odd American regional aberration, though it has been thought by some to be such, due to a greater use in the US in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of it is from a 1724 translation of a classical Greek text, published in London; the next is from an 1815 list of Essex dialect words in a magazine. (Note that the OED’s first citation of roil for the sense “make angry” – which is of course what rile means, as I think we all know – is from 1742, and the second from 1818.) So these words first split a quarter of a millennium ago, and rile is quite well established now; indeed, it is much more common than roil (either sense of roil), even in Britain.

“But it came from a mispronunciation!” some may object. “It’s like saying ‘bile’ for boil!” First of all, it is more accurate to say that it came from a dialectal pronunciation, and was respelled, as many words have been over time. But even if it had come from a mispronunciation, so what? It’s established now. It’s far from being the only common word used today that has its present form due to an error or aberration of some kind back in history, and people don’t get riled up about most of them. So never mind whose fault it may be – oh, sorry, should that be faut? tsk – it is as it is now. If we accept a complete reanalysis such as cockroach (from Spanish cucaracha) or dandelion (from French dent de lion), or if we have no problem with cleaving to the cloven pair daft and daffy, or or or (I could spend a lot of time adducing examples), we can certainly accept such a well-established word as rile.

And it does such a nice job, really. It tends to go with some fairly folksy phrases – get all riled up, for instance – but I have seen it in perfectly mainstream contexts. It has that cranked-up /r/ start (I’m put in mind of the sound some people make when imitating someone who’s ranting: “Rarrarrarrarrar”), followed by the biting-down diphthong /aI/, which is part of a rime that rhymes with I’ll, as in “Arrrr, I’ll smite the next person who says ‘rile’ instead of ‘roil’!”

So, yes, rile is a good word – quite a good one, I think. And it’s a nice reminder that, really, we English speakers are living the life of Riley when it comes to our luxuriously replete wordstock and freewheeling usage patterns. Some people may dislike such richness and comfort, but really, I’ll take it.