Q&A: Rail against vs rally against

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we are reeling from discovering that “rail against” and “rally against” are unrelated.

Q: Hi AWC, I read an article recently about an Adelaide council that was going to “rally against the issue of dumped supermarket trolleys”.

A: A worthy cause.

Q: But then this week, another Australian article stated, “Senators rail against live export of donkeys”…

A: Also worthy.

Q: But which is right? Rally or rail?

A: First, well done on delivering two Australian examples – it helps us dispense with the notion that geography has anything to do with it. Let’s start by going back to the 15th century.

Q: Diddly doo. Diddly doo. Diddly doo.

A: What are you doing?

Q: Time travel sound effects.

A: Oh, okay. Continue.

Q: Diddly doo. Diddly doo.

A: Right, so here we are in the mid 1400s. The noun “rail” has been around for a few centuries by this point – as in a beam or straight piece of wood. But then along comes the verb “rail” – meaning “to utter bitter complaint or vehement denunciation”. It’s likely derived from Latin “ragulare” which means “to bray”.

Q: Bray, like what a donkey would do?

A: Exactly. So, of course you need someone or something to “rail at” or “rail against” – and so we arrive at the phrase.

Q: So if you complain about just one thing, is it a “monorail”?

A: Cute, but no.

Q: Now, what about “rally”?

A: Rally is much younger – arriving in the 1600s, with a few different verb meanings. The one we probably use most today is to gather together for common action. E.g. “they rallied around their leader” or “we should rally to save the hospital”.

Q: Okay.

A: Another common meaning is to recover or bounce back. So the stock market might rally after earlier losses, or a boxer rally to win the fight after looking down and out.

Q: These don’t sound as angry. Are they related to “rail” in any way?

A: No, they come from Old French “rallier” – to join.

Q: Makes sense. So, is anything related to “rail”?

A: There is one surviving verb definition of “rally” that means to mock or ridicule – and it can be traced back to the original scoffing, braying “rail”. But this is a “rally” really rarely used.

Q: Haha. Yes, I’d be more likely to rally in tennis than to mockingly rally someone.

A: We’ve seen you play tennis. There’s plenty to mock.

Q: Oh hardy ha ha.

A: And so we end up with “rail against” and “rally against” that many assume share common lineage, but do not at all. While neither is wrong, they are not interchangeable.

Q: Please explain.

A: “Rail against” is by far the more common phrase. As we already know, it is to complain, denounce or strongly oppose. An individual can do this (e.g. “she railed against the storm”) or a group (e.g. the headline, “US immigrants rail against court order”). And one place you’ll find people railing against things is at a… rally.

Q: I hate English.

A: Haha. So, “rally against” is more literal. It either describes a physical rally (march, protest) taking place or the promise of a call to arms. It’s all about the gathering, which is why we suggest you can’t “rally against” something on your own, but you can “rail”.

Q: So was that first article wrong to say the council was “rallying against the issue of dumped shopping trolleys” when no actual rally was taking place?

A: The story was in the context of them building a campaign, so there is the hint of a public call to arms. If you like, the council was “rallying the troops” rather than simply “railing against” or complaining about the issue. And that’s the important difference.

Q: So to “rally against” is the act of gathering, while to “rail against” is the act of opposing or complaining?

A: That’s a great way to think about it. Consider this example. “We are rallying against the government today, taking to the microphone to rail against the use of chemicals in our drinking water”.

Q: Do you have any more examples?

A: Sure. “Let’s rally against the closure of the hospital, so that we can rail against the decisions being made by the board.” Or “She railed against the closure of the hospital and called on other towns to rally against this alarming trend.”

Q: Wow, I really hope some of those hospitals stay open. Especially with all that dodgy drinking water out there.

A: They were just examples; everyone is fine.

Q: Oh good. So, to recap – it’s all about context. As an individual, you could “rail against” something but it’s not the same as rallying against it.

A: Correct. Now, let’s end this before it goes off the rails.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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