By Anatoly Liberman
When a journalist on a prestigious paper happens to use a word, it becomes common property almost at once. Suddenly I began noticing raft everywhere: a raft of shabby houses, a raft of proposals, and so forth. Whether raft will attain the status of a buzzword the future will show (it has such potential). Now is the time for all good writers to avoid it. Raft “multitude,” supposedly an Americanism, has slighting or disparaging overtones, though nowadays it sounds more like a colloquialism (“a whole bunch of…”). Its origin is unknown, but in search of help it may be useful to look at the other raft and its environment.
The history of raft, a word designating a structure like the one on which Huck and Jim floated down the Mississippi, is inseparable from that of rafter “beam in a building supporting the roof” (what a pity that Salinger called his story “Raise High the Roof Beam” rather than “…the Rafter” and deprived me of the possibility of referring to him here!). Rafter has been known since the Old English days (ræfter) and has come down to us unchanged, but raft, which is related to it, is a borrowing of Old Norse raptr (pronounced raftr). In ræfter, t- and -er are suffixes, whereas in raptr -r is an ending. The meaning of the root (raf-) is obscure. Comparison with Engl. rib and its Swedish cognate ref-, on account of a rib-like appearance of the timber used in roofing, looks strained. Nor do the sounds match as they should. Equally unrevealing is reference to the Indo-European root meaning “tear off” (presumably, because tree bark had to be removed from the trunk before using it in construction). Even Old Icelandic ráf “roof” (á designates long a) provides no semantic clue, for it has already been established that we are dealing with the covering of a building and its supports.
Some modern Germanic words with initial r once began with hr (compare ridge and rung from Old Engl. hrycg and hrung), but none of the unquestionable cognates of raft ~ rafter had initial hr-. Consequently, roof (from hrof) seems to be unrelated. One hopes against hope that once upon a time rafter was hrafter, because how can it be that two such similar-sounding words for “roof” (Icelandic ráf and Old Engl. hrof) should not be allied? However, historical linguistics has taught us to treat sound correspondences with respect. A tiny difference (h-), which an 18th-century etymologist would not have noticed, forms an insurmountable barrier to us. If rafter is related to Greek orofos “roof” the root’s original meaning may have been the same as in Greek erefein “to cover,” but it is always desirable to have a convincing Germanic cognate of an English word. The closest one would be Icelandic refsa “punish,” which makes one think of tearing off (compare excoriate, literally “remove the skin, flay”) rather than of “cover,” which returns us to the rejected tree bark. It appears that raft(er) has no ancient Indo-European antecedents.
Raf- resembles rub, rubble, rabble, rubbish, ruffle, raffle, and riffraff, among others. None of them has anything to do with raft “a structure of planks.” Although some of those words came to English from French, French seems to have borrowed them from Germanic. Wherever their home might be, they never refer to boards, planks, trees, or beams, and their phonetic shape holds no promise either, for, unlike raft, in the past they sometimes began with h. Raffle (from French: compare French rafler “snatch up”) goes back to some verb like German raffen or raffeln “snatch up, snatch away, carry off hastily.” And riffraff, also from French, designates, from an etymological point of view, pieces of plunder of small value. Their congeners are robe and rob (those are related, because, as explained in the post “Strip them Naked,” at the end of the battle it was common to take garments from the slain). But raffle and riffraff gain in importance when we turn to raft “large quantity, multitude.”
The problem with this raft is that it has a close but obviously unrelated synonym, namely, raff “abundance, plenty; a large number, collection; rubbish; ragtag and bobtail; foreign timber, usually in the form of deals.” As noted, rubbish will tell us nothing about raft, even if before it came to French, it existed as a Germanic word. But riffraff and raffle do make us think of trash and snatching up things, in a hurry or otherwise. Both riff and raff have been attested as separate words. 14th-century Engl. rif and raf go back to French rif et raf, and their ties with German raffen, mentioned above, are hard to deny.
The OED considers raft “timber” to be a different word from raft “abundance,” but the decision to keep them apart might be wrong. In its entirety, the picture emerges with the following blurry contours. Rafter has existed in English from time immemorial, even though its ultimate origin is unknown (a Germanic word without secure connections elsewhere). Attempts to reconstruct an ancient Indo-European root from which it was derived failed to produce worthwhile results. In Old Norse, raptr, a cognate and synonym of raft, was current, and in the 15th century it made its way into Middle English. Alongside and independent of those nouns, Germanic had rif and raf for disparate pieces: low words for low concepts. Riffraff came to signify all kinds of “promiscuous multitudes,” spread to French, and later (also in the 15th century) was adopted by English. Raff “abundance” and “trash,” chiefly a northern word, could hardly develop into raft, though parasitic final t has been attested in various words (however, more often after s). Some confusion must have been in play. Raft, a simple structure of logs, was probably associated with both “multitude” and “trash.” If raft “a large quantity” is really an Americanism (that is, if it was coined with this sense in the United States), its dependence on raff (despite the disparaging overtones) is unlikely: rather, it is an extension of raft in its primary meaning. Further research into dialectal usage and the language of loggers may shed additional light on the origin of this word, now so dear to pressrooms around the country.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”