raffish

How I would like sometimes to be raffish. To have won the raffle of charm and looks: not to be suave or debonair but to be charmingly rascally and always to carry the air of a mostly harmless bad influence. Rumpled shirt, unshaven chin, messy hair, devil-may-care attitude. A bit of fun that you’ll want to slightly regret but more want to really not regret. Trouble with a capital tease. Not James Bond (though Daniel Craig could also do raffish if he wanted); someone who stepped forward from the riff-raff, with a stolen rose and a glint in his eye. Not a ruffian; someone refreshing. A human embodiment of a half-crumpled raffle ticket… one that is guaranteed to win something

I don’t think I can quite manage it. I gave it a little shot with the unshaven look and… no. (Well, see for yourself on flickr if you must.) I’m no Jimmy, I’m a James. Also I’m too blonde (or light grey) for the stubble to read as anything other than bad focus. Well, so be it. I’m not really one to make a mess of things or to leave a mess behind me. Heck, in Hedda Gabler I was a natural to be cast as Tesman, not as Løvborg… to my mild chagrin. You want someone raffish? I think the French do it best. Ah oui, les français.

Where did we get this word, anyway? This softish, roughish word with its flipped hair ff and its final winking “sh!”? Its echoes range from ruffian and naffish to rash and laugh and even fresh. It’s the near-reverse of sherriff. It seems somehow reputably disreputable, like someone with an unspecified past – a past that you just don’t care that much about.

Our present sense – which Oxford gives as “Showing an attractive lack of regard for conventional behaviour, appearance, or style; rakish; mischievous; offbeat” and which can actually be applied to men or women, though my own sense is that it lands more on men – is a semantic amelioration, in fact. The older sense, again per Oxford, is “Disreputable in character, behaviour, or appearance; vulgar, unrefined; sleazy.”

The darker side of raffish. That charming guy you met in the bar who had all these great stories and got into such fun trouble has now, after spending two weeks on your couch, disappeared with a bundle of your money and some of your electronics, and someone saw him getting into a bar fight and lying sloppy in a gutter. Because, in the end, he’s just a bit of riff-raff.

Literally. He’s the second half of riff-raff, or something like it: when we’re done the riff, we’re left with raff, and he’s at least raff-ish. He’s part of the raff, which is the people (hoi polloi), every one – riff and raff, as the old expression was. It seems to come from Old French rifler ‘spoil’ and raffler ‘ravage’. Well, if anyone knows about spoiling and ravaging, being spoiled and ravaged…

Ah oui, les français.

2 responses to “raffish

  1. You make raffish sound so fun. Rrrravishing, in fact.

  2. Hi James,
    When I was living on pennies, in my early years as a racing driver, the new definition of raffish would have applied. More to the point, it is a word that will, thankfully, resist being made into a verb. I recently heard, on our own CBC, someone talk about jobs being “civilianized”. Later the same day an otherwise interesting woman pronounced niche so it sounded like a rash. The word itself, with French overtones, is wonderful. As something you either need to scratch or cover in balm, it is less musical.
    Best,
    Alan

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