Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: riff; rift (1).

riff; rift (1). Today: “riff.” These two are sometimes confused. “Riff” is now largely confined to jazz and pop-music contexts. It refers to a melodic phrase, usually repeated and often played in unison by several instruments; sometimes it’s a variation on a tune, and it may be either an accompaniment to a solo or the only melodic element. E.g.: “With guitar riffs so rudimentary they seem to have been made up on the spot, . . . the U.K. sextet played with rude ebullience.” Gret Kot, “No Stretching for Elastica,” Chicago Trib., 29 Sept. 2000, at 2. In these senses, the term dates only from the mid-20th century — and has little discernible relation to the older, mostly obsolete senses of “riff” (= [1] a string of onions, [2] the diaphragm, and [3] the mange; an itchy rash). That’s probably because this particular “riff” seems to have originated as a truncated form of the musical term “refrain.” By extension, the word came to apply to a comic’s take on a particular subject, especially an extemporaneous tirade — e.g.: “The comedian Richard Lewis says he was knocked out when he first heard a [Jonathan] Winters album at the age of thirteen: . . . ‘I asked to sit next to him at a Stanley Kramer dinner, and just leaning over for a string bean he’d go into a whole riff about where that string bean came from and that I was insane for eating it. Nothing can go by him.'” Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny 621 (2004). Next: “rift.” For information about the Language-Change Index, click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “Bone-dry writing often comes from men and women who themselves are alive with personality and astir with ideas.” Henry Seidel Canby, Better Writing 91 (1926).
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