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?
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?
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!