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Riffing on riffs

October 19, 2016

Has anyone else noticed that the word riff seems to have changed its meaning in the last few years? In fact it has become the exact opposite of what it used to mean. A riff used to mean a musical phrase, usually played on a guitar, which drove along repetitively all the way through a song, without changing: like the famous guitar riff in Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, which in the 70s was used as the Top of the Pops theme. But now when people talk about riffing they mean something quite different. In the first place it’s usually used with reference to stand-up comedy rather than music. Also these days it’s mostly used as a verb rather a noun. But the most notable shift is that instead of referring to something that stays the same throughout the performance, it now means something that keeps changing. When a critic writes that a comedian “riffs on the pitfalls and anxieties of parenthood”, they don’t mean the comedian keeps repeating the same phrase or thought. They mean the comedian investigates the topic from a variety of different angles, using it as a thread to connect a string of different jokes and comic observations; they mean something more like improvising on a theme, rather than playing a riff.

Words are always changing their meanings, of course. But some changes are more annoying than others. I find this one annoying: riff sounds as if it has aspirations to be a technical term, a piece of specialist language, and for me it doesn’t convince, because I remember the old meaning of riff too well.

But what other word could the comedy critic use? Well, how about expatiate?

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2 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    How about one of the claims? Either pro- or de- (not sure on the difference between them).
    Didn’t comedians use to rap about things before the word got co-opted?

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    Heartily agree. As you rightly point out, a riff is a musical snippet which is subsequently explored and developed, as in a fabulous piece by Leonard Bernstein called ‘Prelude, Fugue and Riffs’ (probably my favourite classical musical title ever). You develop a riff. You do not ‘riff’. The comedy crowd are trying to appropriate some cultural gravity by borrowing a term from music. In the same way, I recently attended a comedy festival and was equally amused and annoyed to read on every page of the programme how the festival and each performance had been ‘curated’ (don’t get me started on that one). The only thing that annoys me more than this is the old cliche of a performance or football match ‘rising to a crescendo’ when ‘crescendo’, of course, means the act of getting louder, rather than being the peak of the arc itself. Grrrr.

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