It’s been a while since I’ve gone after the affably ignorant William Safire and his weekly maunderings about language, but once again a remark of his is so dunderheaded that I have to point and scoff. Today’s column is about the word rant. I’m used to his pretending that whatever word or phrase he’s decided to pick on is “enjoying a boom” and having a “sudden, unforeseen blossoming,” so that’s not what bothered me. No, it was this, from his obligatory paragraph on etymology: “The German verb ranzen, ‘to dance about gaily, to frolic,’ was picked up in English in Richard Brome’s 1641 play, ‘The Joviall Crew’: ‘The more the merrier, I am resolved to Rant it to the last.'” There are two species of idiocy here. The first, the Common or Garden Variety of Safire Idiocy, is the pretense that the first citation in the OED is the very first time the word was used in English, so the user (in this case Ben Jonson’s pal Richard Brome, pronounced “broom,” whose comedy A Jovial Crew was the last play performed before the closing of the theaters under the Puritans) is said to have invented it or personally imported it, whichever applies. The second is the claim that it is from German ranzen. Every dictionary I have says it’s from the (obsolete) Dutch verb ranten, which (as you will note) looks and sounds a lot more like the English word; the OED (presumably where Safire or his assistant went for the information) adds “cf. G. ranzen to frolic, spring about, etc.” Cf. means ‘compare,’ and the German is added as a related word; it clearly was not the direct source. And whatever the source, the word was presumably borrowed by somebody who hung out with foreigners and liked the word enough to start using it; it caught on and was used by an unknowable number of merrie olde Englishmen before Brome put it in his comedy and became the First Citation. Please, Safire & Co., use your heads before repeating this tiresome error!
By the way, speaking of OED citations reminds me that in my post about Dancing on Mara Dust I forgot to mention an achievement of Vivien’s I envy even more than her getting a book published: she’s cited in the OED! The June 2005 draft revision of the parcel entry includes this as definition 10.d.:

pass the parcel a children’s game in which a gift wrapped in several layers of paper is passed around a circle of players to the accompaniment of music, the person holding the parcel when the music stops being allowed to unwrap a layer (more recently, a gift may be wrapped in each layer). Also allusively: a situation in which ownership of or (esp. undesired) responsibility for something is passed on frequently.

And among the citations is:
1955 V. SMITH Bk. about Browns (MS story) (O.E.D. Archive) xxi. 46 Then the party began. Molly, who always had good ideas said to every-one ‘Should we have pass the parcel?’ ‘That’s what we’re going to play,’ said Mr. Brown.
Now, that’s what I call immortality! And the Book about Browns was written when she was eight, making her the youngest author to be cited in the OED.


  1. I always enjoy a good languagehat Safire rant.
    The dictionaries may say that ranten is obsolete, but I searched Google on a hunch (in .nl and .be):
    Ranten op weblogs ist verboten
    En ook dat ik niet weer nodeloos zal ranten.
    … ik het gevoel van ranten en ranten for the sake of it …
    I suspect that it’s still just an English borrowing, judging by the preceding context and the quotation marks around it in the next sentence:
    [I]k beloof plechtig niet meer over Lanfeust te ‘ranten’.
    I wonder if there are many documented instances of a word being reimported back into a language from a second language after a period of disuse.

  2. Heh. Brilliant hunch, excellent outcome! And I know there are examples of such reimportation, but I’m still digesting my lunch and too logy to think of them. Someone will come along and do it for me…

  3. It seems most people no longer know that “cf.” means “compare.” I constantly see people using it as though it meant “see,” or as though it were just some cryptic symbol people use to indicate that they’re citing a reference.

  4. I remember once reading a list of words that were condemned as ‘anglicisms’ by the Académie de la langue française which were actually reimportations. Can’t remember who wrote it unfortunately.

  5. I always get “cf.” and “viz.” mixed up. I look them up every time, and then I forget again. Often, when reading, you don’t really care.

  6. To be fair, people with a lot more on the ball linguistically than Safire make the same habitual mistake about the OED, or by saying that “Shakespeare coined” such-and-such a word when in fact he is merely the first recorded user. (sbp, that means you!)

  7. I’m confused by Safire’s timeline in this column. He starts with Brome’s use in 1641 that he says maintains the “earliest meaning” of rant. His next sentence seems to imply the semantic shift came when Shakespeare changed the meaning, giving it a “bombastic sense.” But that was in Hamlet, 1602, four decades before Brome. What gives?

  8. As a sidenote: I’ve never met ranzen, but Kluge’s etymological dictionary says it was created before the 17th c. It means either to be rutting/on heat or to leap about in wild abandon: the second meaning is probably derived from the behaviour of deer and other animals in the rutting season. ‘Dance about gaily’ sounds like a weaker interpretation of this.

  9. Can anybody falsify for me the hypothesis that the c17 sect associated with Abiezer Coppe were called “Ranters” originally because of their antinomianism and socially dubious behaviour (see original definition above), but that the common modern usage, to hold forth in an unrestrained style, is derived from their writings?

    That amongst those various voyces that
    were then uttered within, these were some: Blood, blood,Where, where? upon the hypocriticall holy heart &c. Another thus: Vengeance, vengeance, vengeance, Plagues, plagues, upon the inhabitants of the Earth; Fire, fire, fire, Sword, sword &c.
    upon all that bow not down to eternall Majesty, universall love; I’ll recover, recover, my wooll, my flax, my money. Declare, declare, fear thou not the faces of any; I am (in thee) a munition of Rocks &c.

    (Preface to A Fiery Flying Roll, 1649)

  10. Chris Y’s hypothesis is worth looking into, I think. The ranters, Quakers, and various other groups of that time had an array of extravagent behaviors, and perhaps the dancing-around idea ended up mostly meaning the speaking-prophecy part.
    Rastafarians remind me of that aspect of the English revolution. I have known white rastas whose rants were quite eloquent.

  11. Richard Hershberger says

    Thanks, LH, for the Safire update. I was skeptical as I read the column over my morning coffee, but not motivated enough to follow through.
    There is absolutely no reason to go easy on Safire. He has the premier language columnist’s job in the country, and can’t be bothered to meet even minimal standards of competence. Jan Freeman at the Boston Globe should shame him into retirement, but I doubt he reads her.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Ranzen? I didn’t know that word. So I opened the extra-thick Duden and… yes, there it is, but explained as obscure hunters’ jargon used for the mating of carnivorous mammals. Keep on ranting then.

  13. Quite a lot of etymological nonsense could be explained if people now think “cf.” stands for “comes from”.

  14. Is ranzen perhaps more closely related to the British randy?

  15. Siganus Sutor says

    David: « I opened the extra-thick Duden and… yes, there it is, but explained as obscure hunters’ jargon used for the mating of carnivorous mammals »
    Does it include the carnivorous mammal known as “man”? (a species which apparently needs to eat the flesh of some large marine mammals).

  16. In English country-dancing there is still a vaguely polka-like dance step called a rant; several dance figures and tunes (for instance, Morpeth Rant) are named for it.

  17. David Marjanović says

    We count as omnivorous.

  18. Siganus Sutor says

    So, no ranzen for the omnivorous ones? Would it be a relief or be rather sad instead? (according to the definition provided).
    No fleshy Beauty to satisfy the Beast’s carnal appetites?

  19. “Ranten” is completely unknown in modern Dutch. The cited examples are definitely jocular borrowings from English. Maybe it’ll catch on one day, just like “browsen”, “saven”, and “printen”.
    I seem to recall seeing something about “passing the parcel” on some BBC program about the OED. Small world, eh…

  20. John Cowan says

    Reborrowings in WP (with a short list).

  21. I like the definition in “English: craic (fun of a quintessentially Irish type).”

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