Here is a snippet from a news report concerning the police investigation into the affairs of leading members of the Scottish National Party earlier this Spring (6 April): ‘…constant camera flashes could be seen from inside the garage as officers comb through the garden and riffle through the upstairs bedrooms’. I’m intrigued by that word ‘riffle’; it’s been undergoing a curious metamorphosis over the last decade or so.

There exist, in fact, two distinct expressions: one, the transitive verb ‘to rifle’, meaning ‘to steal’, or, more forcibly, ‘to plunder’ or ‘to ransack’ – definitions I take from Chamber’s Dictionary.  The OED specifies: ‘To search thoroughly with intent to rob’. The second expression is another verb, ‘to riffle’ which, according to Chamber’s, means ‘to turn or stir rapidly, as the pages of a book’. Again, the OED gives more detail: ‘to handle in a hesitating manner, so as to produce a slight rustle’. The verb is connected with the obsolete noun ‘riffle’ which, like ‘ripple’, refers to slight but rapid movement of shallow water. The OED does add the worried note: ‘it is not quite certain that all the [given] senses belong to the same word’.

What is striking is the association of ‘riffle’ with sounds. It’s as though ‘riffle’ was essentially onomatopoeic – a word that enacts the sound that it intends to represent: the rustling of leaves, the flicking of pages in a book, the light babbling of water moving on an uneven bed. Dictionaries attribute this meaning to North American usage. 

So ‘riffle’ and ‘rifle’ are quite separate terms, each with its own distinct derivation and meaning. But, like so many terms with similar sounds or spellings, the two words have come to be used indiscriminately, not so much because they might as well be interchangeable, but as if writers who employ them are unaware of the difference. Here’s a sentence from a novel published in 2003: ‘Jack began rifling through the racks looking for size 14 dresses’ (Sue Townsend, Number Ten). Jack was not plundering the racks: he was looking through them rapidly. The preposition ‘through’ belongs to the verb describing an act of browsing or searching quickly – ‘riffle’: while ‘rifle’ implies a single, more decisive and throughgoing action; ‘despoil’ is another synonym often given for it.

‘To rifle’ takes a direct object: one rifles an Egyptian tomb, or a cash machine that one has broken into. On the other hand, ‘Riffle’ is intransitive and tends to require a preposition, as in my example here: ‘to riffle through the upstairs bedrooms’. ‘Riffle’ is a verb that describes an action continuously repeated, and the fact that it so often seems to carry with it the strong implication of sound-effects suggests that it may be related to another audio-suggestive verb, ‘to ruffle’.

In this context we might note the audible content of the word ‘rifle’, which comes from the ‘rifling’ of a gun, where a spiral groove is engraved or moulded in the interior surface of the barrel to make the bullet twist as it emerges, and revolve in its flight, ensuring a more accurate trajectory. Hence the name of the gun itself, a ‘rifle’. But that is a quite distinct sense, and even the OED isn’t confused by the difference there.

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