Today's word in the hand: Ravish


Today's word in the hand: Ravish

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times

In his resignation speech on Valentine’s Day, former president Jacob Zuma did not use the terms “ravage” or “ravish”. He did, however, help himself to the word “perks”, not just once but five times. In case you missed these titbits, here they are: 

“Some have even dared to suggest that one’s perks … should determine how one chooses to vacate public office.”
“Often these concerns about perks … are raised by the very same people seeking to speak as paragons of virtue.”
“Various suggestions are made to help leaders avoid … vacating political office without perks.”
“I did not agree to serve in order to exit with perks.”
“No leader should seek an easy way out simply because they could not face life at the end of their term without the perks that come with their political office.”

Whatever you choose to make of those mysterious statements, there is little doubt in the public mind that Zuma and his cronies did not simply dip their fingers into the perks dish. They ravaged supposedly secure state storehouses the way fire ravages a forest.
Speaking of fire, fellow grammar nerds might have noticed that news reports are increasingly ravaged by the substitution of “ravish” for ravage.
On Tuesday this week, US website The Inquisitr (thus named because “The Inquisitor” belongs to a Louisiana crime-watch tabloid) reported that Prince Harry’s fiancée Meghan Markle was said to have secretly visited “the site of the disastrous fire that ravished a community on June 14, 2017”.
A pedant might be tempted to read The Inquisitr’s terms of service, which insist that “contributors have gone through a rigorous vetting process … which includes passing the Inquisitr’s grammar and general knowledge test with a satisfactory score”.
One person’s “satisfactory” is another person’s “totally unacceptable” but, to be fair, bushels of professional writers constantly use “ravished” where they mean “ravaged”.This wildfire misuse has spread so rapidly that it will probably soon be accepted by the Oxford English Dictionary, the august organ that now lists “figuratively” as one of the definitions of “literally”. Until that day, using ravage and ravish as though they were interchangeable remains highly unsatisfactory.
“Ravage”, from the Old French ravager, means to destroy, flatten, ruin or devastate, as happens when a flood, fire, war or corrupt administration comes along.
“Ravish”, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, is from the French ravir, meaning to seize, plunder, grab and – usually – carry away. Since the object of said grabbing was usually a woman, it did not take long for ravish to be seized upon as a synonym for rape.
You can see where the confusion arises. Rape victims are not just ravished but ravaged, when you consider the psychological devastation visited upon them. And those who destroy or ravage the economy of a country can equally be said to have ravished an innocent victim.
To add insult to incoherence, the adjective “ravishing” has renounced its parent verb and now means enchanting, beguiling, charming and beautiful. Language is weird.
Which brings us to radish. Rooting around for the ancient origins of this vegetable takes us to wrād, meaning “root”, which is also the root of radical, eradicate and rhizome.
There is no correlation between radish and ravish, even in Australian slang, where “root” usually describes an act undertaken by consenting adults.
On a lighter note, Ravish can also be a name. Indian journalist Ravish Kumar gave a speech at the recent Times Lit Fest in Mumbai, in which he used the word “democtator” to describe a democratically elected leader who subsequently behaves like a dictator. We await the response of dictionaries...

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