Q&A: “Ravenous” or “ravishing”?

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're raving mad…

Q: Hi AWC, I met a friend of mine for dinner last night. They said I was looking ravenous and then sat down and explained how ravishing they were as they browsed the menu. Is this correct?

A: It depends. Were you looking hungry?

Q: I’m pretty sure they were talking about how I looked.

A: In that case, they’ve gone and got their ravs mixed up.

Q: Oh! There actually WAS a mix up in the kitchen with our ravioli orders!

A: No, mixing “ravishing” with “ravenous”. It’s a common problem.

Q: Yeah, that makes more sense.

A: “Ravishing” is generally the word you want when describing someone’s appearance as what Macquarie Dictionary defines it as – “enchanting or entrancing”.

Q: Aha. Is there a “ravish”?

A: There is. It came along first – way back around 1300. Today, the main definition is “to fill with strong emotion or joy”. But it started off meaning “to seize by violence and carry away a person – usually a woman.”

Q: Oh dear.

A: It gets worse. Even the term “ravishing” started out in the 1400s as a noun to mean the act of plundering or theft. 

Q: Like looting?

A: Exactly. Although it was the 1400s – so this wasn’t about stealing big screen TVs and sneakers. There was a lot of raping and pillaging baked into the definition too.

Q: Seriously?

A: Absolutely. In fact, the word comes from Old French “ravir”, with its Latin origin of “rapere” – meaning literally to seize or carry away. 

Q: Rather unfortunate back story…

A: Other words like “rapture” also had the same “seizing and plundering” vibes in their early days. Even the religious “Rapture” was about people being taken away.

Q: This has gone beyond ravioli.

A: Haha, so it has. Today, “rapture” or “rapt” are typically used to describe a state of joy or ecstasy but it wasn’t always the case. In fact, to be “rapt” was once akin to literally being carried away while in a trance. 

Q: You’re really getting carried away here!

A: It was rampant. Even the word “rapid” came from the same origin.

Q: So, what, abducted extra quickly?

A: Yeah, that’s essentially what it was!

Q: Seriously??

A: People of this time seemed to spend a lot of time either being abducted or doing the abducting.

Q: Okay, so let’s change gears. What about “ravenous”?

A: Guess.

Q: Surely not?

A: Yep – it came from a very similar Old French definition in the late 1300s – meaning “obsessed with plundering, extremely greedy”. 

Q: Is this ALL anyone was doing in the Middle Ages?

A: It gets worse. For a short time around 1400, the adjectives “ravenous” and “ravishing” meant the same thing – being obsessed with plundering, raping and carrying people away. Happy times.

Q: How was there anyone left? 

A: Good question. You’d think they’d eventually run out of people.

Q: Basic supply and demand.

A: Right!

Q: So when did things start to change?

A: By the early 1400s, we start to see “ravishing” taking on the more modern meaning of “enchanting, exciting rapture or ecstasy”. At about the same time, “ravenous” got itself a new definition too, more along the lines of being “voracious, or furiously hungry”. 

Q: And they’ve stayed like that since, right?

A: They have done. Around 1650, a new adjective of similar origin – “rapacious” – entered English to fill the void that “ravenous” had left behind. It’s also still around today, and has nastier, more selfish vibes. Macquarie Dictionary describes it as “given to seizing for plunder or the satisfaction of greed.”

Q: Oh wow – it really IS channelling those early days.

A: It certainly is. Today, you might declare that you’re ravenous if very hungry. Or you might flamboyantly announce that someone looks ravishing if they look good. But to call someone rapacious may just kill the mood.

Q: It’s been 500 years since the two words picked a lane – I wonder why so many have trouble with them.

A: Well, apart from the three-syllables-starts-with-RAV of it all, we suspect that the culprit is another word.

Q: Ooooh, what word?

A: The word “famished” ALSO means to be very hungry – much like “ravenous”. However, it ends in a similar way to “ravished”. So it’s likely people are announcing that they are ravishing or ravished because it sounds a lot like famished!

Q: That actually makes sense.

A: And remember, “ravishing” may be off the hook these days, but “ravish” still has legit dodgy definition vibes of carrying a woman off forcibly. Best to steer clear of any reference to feeling ravished!

Q: Good advice. Any other rav-tastic facts?

A: Well, the word “ravine” once meant, you guessed it, plunder or robbery, but by the late 1700s came to mean today’s deep narrow valley worn away by water. But even THEN, it was describing the water itself forcibly sweeping violently and pillaging through the valley.

Q: There was definitely something in the water…

A: How was the ravioli by the way?

Q: Rave reviews!

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