I Know There's a 'Rifle' in There Somewhere!

Rob Kyff on

I was riffling through my mailbox the other day, when I came across this letter from John Daigle of Vernon, Connecticut: "I often hear the 'talking heads' on TV say 'rifling' when I think they mean 'riffling,' as in 'riffling through a file.' Could you spend a paragraph on this sometime?"

At the risk of being called a talking head, I'll devote several paragraphs to John's excellent question.

"Riffle," which was probably coined as a variant of "ruffle," means to flip cursorily or hastily through a stack of papers, the pages of a book or a set of cards. My students who only riffle through their textbooks probably won't do well on the reading quiz the next day.

"Rifle," by contrast, is a true rifle of a word. It means to ransack, especially with the intention of stealing. When my students misplace their homework, they sometimes rifle their book bags to find it.

"Rifle" derives from the Middle French "rifler," meaning to scratch, scrape and, by extension, plunder. And, yes, this same root gives us the gun type of "rifle," because the bore of this weapon is scratched or filed with spiral grooves.

"Riffle" is usually followed by the preposition "through" (she riffled through the catalog), while "rifle" usually takes a direct object with no intervening preposition (the burglar rifled my office).

So, use the dainty, windblown "riffle" when you're lightly leafing through papers. Save "rifle" for times when you're looting and plundering -- not that any of you would ever do that, of course.

John Thomas of East Hartford, Connecticut, wrote me about the meaning of this newspaper headline: "Runners, Slake Your Thirst." It ran above a story advising runners to reduce their water intake during long-distance events, such as marathons.

The problem with the headline, John noted, is that "slake" means "quench, satisfy," so a runner who slaked her thirst would be drinking more water, not less.


But here's the twist (I always like my water with a twist): The writer of the headline was actually being true to the original meaning of "slake" -- to lessen the force of, to moderate.

Under that definition, "slake your thirst" could be interpreted as meaning "reduce your thirst." But, alas, this meaning of "slake" is now archaic.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land, a headline is a fact.

Follow what it tells you, then cruise around the track.

Sometimes truth is printed, and sometimes it is blogged.

But there's no joy in Slakeville, when a runner's waterlogged.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.



Joey Weatherford David Fitzsimmons Arctic Circle Carpe Diem Hagar the Horrible Barney & Clyde