• riff •
rif • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: An improvisational passage, especially in popular music; a creative musical variation of the melody of a song or segue to the next line of a melody.
Notes: This word is one of several different words spelled the same way. One refers to a disease, another is a clipping of riffle, another the name of a region in Morocco; the others are archaic. Two humorously contrived relatives are riffage "guitar riffing" and rifferama "music with extravagant riffing".
In Play: Today's word usually refers to music: "Rusty Horne's very original undulating riffs made it clear that the song's rendition was contemporary jazz." This word may be used figuratively, too: "Rhoda Book's latest novel is about a detective who is a satirical riff on old clichés like Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, and Peter Gunn."
Word History: Today's Good Word originated in the US in the 1930s. No one is sure how it arose. The two best speculations are that it, too (see above), was a clipping of riffle or of refrain ([rifrayn). If the former is true, the trail ends there, because no one knows where riffle came from, either. The noun refrain was borrowed from Old French refrain "chorus", which seems to have come from refraindre "to repeat; to break off". This word descended from Latin refringere "to break up", also the origin of the verb to refrain. This verb is composed of re- "(over) again" + fringere, the combining form of frangere "to break". A refrain is usually a repeated section of a musical piece that breaks up the verses. Frangere was inherited from PIE bhreg- "to break", also the source of English break and breach, German brechen, Danish brække, Norwegian brekke, and Swedish bräcka. (Gratitude is owed Mike Nichols for proposing we make this word at the heart of improvisational music today's Good Word.)