The Grammarphobia Blog

Do you want to rant and rave?

Q: A friend of mine used the expression “rant and rave” the other day. That got me thinking. To “rave” about something is positive, but the word turns negative when it’s linked with “rant.” Just wondered if you have any comments!

A: Yes, to “rant and rave” (to shout angrily and wildly) might be described as negative. But to “rave” isn’t quite as positive as you seem to believe.

The verb “rave” can be negative as well as positive. You can rave in anger about something or rave in praise of it.

The verb “rave” has undergone a few changes over the centuries. Let’s follow its history, with a few interruptions along the way.

When “rave” came into English in the 1300s, it didn’t involve shouting or other forms of self-expression.

It meant “to be mad, to show signs of madness or delirium,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word’s origins are uncertain, but there’s a connection with “reverie,” which originally meant wild and uncontrolled behavior.

“Reverie” came into English in the 1300s from Middle French, where it implied madness, delirium, wandering of the mind, and so on.

Going back to “rave,” the OED says it developed new senses in the 1500s and 1600s, when it came to mean “to rage furiously or intensely” and “to speak or declaim wildly, irrationally, or incoherently.”

These are the senses of the word used in the expression “rant and rave,” which was first recorded in the 1600s.

Here we have to interrupt again to discuss the verb “rant,” a word dating from 1602. It came from the Dutch randen (to talk foolishly or rave).

To “rant,” according to the OED, originally meant “to talk or declaim in an extravagant or hyperbolical manner; to use bombastic language; (esp. of an actor) to orate or speak in a melodramatic or grandiose style.”

Later, in the mid-1600s, ranting became angrier. “Rant” came to mean “to speak furiously; to storm or rage violently.”

So to “rant and rave” means, in the words of the OED, “to talk or declaim hyperbolically, wildly, or furiously, now esp. as if mad or delirious.”

But how about a review that’s described as a “rave”? This comes from a quite different meaning of the verb “rave.”

In 1621, “rave” was first used to mean “to speak or write about someone or something with great enthusiasm or admiration,” the OED says.

The verb “rave” in this sense is generally used with “about” or “over” as in the following citation from the Independent (2002): “Several friends rave about this bra. It’s the sort to wear if you want something simple yet sexy.”

The noun form of “rave,” meaning a wildly favorable review, first showed up in print in 1926, according to OED citations.

An article in the American Mercury magazine gives credit to Variety, the show-biz weekly:

“One of the paper’s coinages should be officially embraced by the dictionary and bred into the language. It refers to a flattering, enthusiastic review by a sycophantic critic as a rave.” 

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