Q&A: Raise vs raze

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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 the word ‘raze' raises a few questions for us…

Q: Hi AWC, I found the mailbag and there’s one here from Russell.

A: Hi Russell.

Q: He would like us to look at the difference between “raise” and “raze” and finds it interesting as one is something going up and the other something going down.

A: Hey Russell, we make the jokes around here.

Q: Anyway, he’s curious as to how homophones came to mean exactly the opposite!

A: Fair enough. Well, let’s start with “raise” – which Macquarie Dictionary defines as a verb with no fewer than 39 separate meanings.

Q: Wow, that’s quite a few.

A: The main one of course is “to move to a higher position; lift up; elevate”. So you might raise your hand, raise taxes or raise the level of the oceans due to global warming.

Q: Wow, that turned dark quickly.

A: Most of the meanings relate to some kind of increase, such as to raise in a game of poker. Although one notable exception is “to raise children”.

Q: Some might argue that results in increased stress.

A: Yes, but also increased capacity for love…

Q: A decreased bank balance…

A: Anyway, the origin of the word “raise” is very old, dated back to around 1200 from Old Norse “reisa” and the Proto-Germanic word “raizijanau” – the latter that also gave us the verb “rear”.

Q: Like how a horse rears on its hind legs?

A: Exactly. You’ll find both words interchangeable in “rear/raise its (ugly) head” and curiously, by the 1400s, both “raise” and “rear” were used in conjunction with “raising children” or “rearing children”.

Q: Okay, so we’ve established that “raise” and “rear” are related. But I’m not sure Russell will be satisfied…

A: True. Let’s take a look at “raze”.

Q: Yes, I have a burning desire to do so. Hahaha.

A: You’ve been waiting a while to say that, haven’t you?

Q: Maybe.

A: Anyway, returning to Macquarie, “raze” means “to tear down, demolish, or level to the ground”.

Q: Wait, no mention of fire?

A: Nope. Obviously to “raze a building to the ground” is often in a fire context, but it actually isn’t part of the definition. It’s simply to destroy something completely (typically a building, town etc).

Q: So a tornado could raze a town to the ground?

A: Correct.

Q: It does seem like I’d reserve “raze” for fire.

A: And that’s okay. But just know it’s not exclusively flame-grilled.

Q: Interesting. So, origin story?

A: “Raze” has a completely different lineage to “raise” – not arriving until the 16th century, as a variation of now-defunct “racen/rasen” meaning “pull or knock down”. That was in turn from Latin “rasere” meaning “to scrape, shave”.

Q: Ooooooh, so that’s where we get “razor” from?

A: That’s right. See, sometimes English rewards us with logic.

Q: So I see a lot of people say that something was “raised to the ground”. This is incorrect, yes?

A: Totally incorrect. As we’ve established, you would raze it to the ground.

Q: Well, that was a great topic to raze, Russell!

A: Wait, we think you mean a great topic to raise.

Q: But we totally destroyed it!

A: Um, no.

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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