I had a how's-that-again moment on Christmas Day as I was reading a New York Times story by Ken Belson and Eric Lichtblau about the short-lived presidential pardon of Isaac Toussie:
Neighbors say the elder Mr. Toussie built the fence a decade ago to keep rabble-rousers away from the shoreline promenade on the Rockaway Inlet that abuts his family’s waterfront homes, including one where Isaac lives. While Mr. Toussie’s fence, which has No Trespassing signs in English and Russian, has largely kept the derelicts at bay, it has also alienated neighbors who might otherwise have little bad to say about him.
After a double-take, I conjectured that rabble-rouser here must have been a thinko for rabble — I mean, they're talking about keeping derelicts at bay, not communist agitators. And I can see how the rouser might follow as a kind of unconscious reflex, since the two words are so closely associated. In Nexis's US Papers and Wires, better than 80 percent (421/524) of the instances of rabble over the last six months occurred in forms like rabble-rouser or rabblerouser, rabble-rousing, etc. And two-thirds (215/316) of the occurrences of rouser are preceded by rabble (actually it's more like 90 percent if you exclude the uses of Rouser as a proper name). Given the mutual priming here, it wouldn't be surprising that rabble should evoke rouser even when that wasn't the intended meaning. But it turns out that I'm behind the curve on this one.
It's true that of you google around you sometimes see rabble-rouser used in a way that suggests something like rabble, or better riffraff:
The founding fathers had a fear of the rabble rousers in the country, they feared they would be too uneducated and problamatic to even know how to select government officials, and they might have had something during that time, as so many were uneducated….
Well, that is exactly what we think the song should be about. It should be about this girl who can’t get enough, and wants more and more and more. The song could open up by talking about how there are all these rumors about her… But she doesn’t care because she out classes these rabble rousers.
"Boys Don't Cry" is the story of how Brandon moved 70 miles away to a wide spot in the road called Falls City and began a new life as the little buddy of felonious, hard-drinking hayseeds and an the town's most alluring, byronic, 120-pound hunk — before being exposed as a cross-dresser and heinously raped and murdered by the repulsed rabble-rousers he called friends.
But it isn't likely that all of these are simple performance errors; a lot of people seem to have reanalyzed the term. Sometimes it seems to mean "troublemaker" (perhaps the sense it has in the Times story), and sometimes it just refers to someone who makes a lot of noise, either annoying or enthusiastic:
I live in a condo where the management fines occupants who make too much noise, and the Eurotrash who live next to me have actually turned down the volume on their stereo. I think that they moved the speakers away from our common wall. Success! Over the years, I have also found that rabble-rousers tend to move on faster than regular tenants or owners. So be patient, call the police if absolutely necessary, and wear those wax earplugs that another poster suggested.
Last evening, at about 5 pm, I was standing on the corner of 5th & Sherman, two Harleys (not custom bikes) with the obligatory straight pipes engaged in a side-by-side drag race to the East when the light changed to green…. The sound was so incredibly loud that it went from annoyance on my part to curiousity as to what decibal level they achieved for a few seconds. … Personally I think it is time for the law-abiding citizens of CDA to take back their downtown from the rabble-rousers.
Four couples staying here partied until all hours of the night out on the patio and were loud and obnoxious. The management leaves the premises at 8:00 and was unresponsive to our complaint about the noise. With such a beautiful property, it seemed out of sorts to allow this level of noise. We have never witnessed such a group of rabble rousers left unchecked.
Rabble rousing is also used to mean "making noise" or "carrying on":
Before I ever attended one of these events I was told stories of how the 'worship services' usually go. There is a lot of drinking, a lot of rabble rousing, and many, many illicit drugs
And sometimes, in fact, rabble-rouser is used in a positive way:
Why don't the Cubs have any rabble rousers on their team? It's been 100 years, they should be sick of these curses!!! In the playoffs, this is every game counts! These losses should awaken the sleeping giant inside each of them and fill them with a terrible resolve… COME ON PINELLA!! LEE!! SORIANO!! RAMIREZ!! You won't beat a curse BY JUST BEING CALM!!
It's clear that the meaning of rabble-rouser for people who use the word this way isn't a function of the dictionary meanings of rabble and rouse. But that doesn't mean it isn't compositional, but only that the meanings of the parts have changed. Nowadays the word rabble is a deliberate archaism, mostly used to impute to someone a snooty attitude toward the mass or mob, and it wouldn't be surprising if some people didn't identify the rabble of rabble rouser with that sense. In fact rabble sometimes seems to mean "ruckus, racket, din"; you see people talk about raising a rabble in this sense of the word:
…There will be cloth covering this ledge, so no one will see it, but she insists on changing it 10 times and raising a rabble with Ryan. Everyone gets sick of her angle crusade and starts ignoring her, so she storms off emotionally.
…Meanwhile lets's just admire Gilchrist for being an ALL STAR player. Oh and by the way the man WALKED. A great sportsman just retired – let's not raise a rabble over this!
Nobody will ever raise a rabble about some anime because nobody cares. The subject matter is just an anime and people are watching it to be entertained.
So the development of rabble-rouser seems to be:
agitator -> troublemaker -> hell-raiser -> noise-maker,
with rouse shifting its meaning from "stir up, provoke" to "raise" (in the sense of "raise a cry") and rabble shifting its meaning to "noise" or "ruckus" somewhere along the way. As it happens, that isn't that far from the original meaning of the noun rabble as "Hurried or confused talk;babble"; it may yet get all the way home some day.