If Rabble Comes can Rousers be Far Behind?

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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.  


  1. Ed said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

    i noticed when reading the examples you gave that in the cases where rabble-rouser is used with the sense of rabble, riffraff, it is a complete replacement, including syntactic features. for example, in

    But she doesn’t care because she out classes these rabble rousers.

    rabble rouser behaves as an ordinary count noun, taking plural -s and the plural determiner these. rabble, on the other hand, is always a mass noun (at least in my idiolect), so a paraphrase using it would have to be

    she outclasses this rabble


    *she outclasses these rabble(s)

    Geoff Nunberg said: Actually, this can go either way. Google Book turns up both singular and plural demonstratives and both singular and plural verbs with rabble, mixed in various combinations (and in both older and modern texts):

    Well, as you may or may not be aware, this rabble have established themselves on some island in the great river…

    But it appears to me that this rabble has a vested interest in not allowing you to have a manly, honorable chat with your cousin and neighbors…

    If these rabble could have lain quiet, they might have waylaid the two men…

    I grow tired of watching these rabble flail about.

    This rabble fancies they have the right to insult a Christian…

    The workers are demanding the removal of this rabble who have become a real calamity to the country.

    The only combination I didn't find was these rabble with a singular verb, not surprisingly. It's not easy to estimate the relative frequency of the various forms, since there are lots of irrelevant strings to rule out. But there are plenty of both. For what it's worth, I'd say "this rabble" but use a plural verb.

  2. Bobbie said,

    January 3, 2009 @ 10:13 pm

    A priest and a minister and a rabble walk into a bar….

  3. Robert Coren said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 12:14 am

    I suspect (as hinted at in Ed's comment) that what Toussie's fence was really meant to keep out was riff-raff. In fact, I speculate (without any particular foundation) that the transformation of rabble to rabble-rouser is in part influenced by riff-raff, with a sort of vague idea that there's supposed to be a compound involved somehow.

  4. Melissa said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 12:38 am

    I had no idea rabble-rouser meant someone who stirs up the masses (and I got almost all the way through this post before I finally figured it out, and looked up rabble to confirm my understanding). I'm 28 and I have a liberal arts degree (linguistics even) from a big almost-Ivy type university.

    I guess the context I've seen rabble-rouser in hasn't been specific enough for me to get the original meaning from it. I can see how this type of change can snowball, because if I ever used rabble-rouser, my listeners wouldn't get the original meaning from it either. One day the "error" will make it onto someone's pet peeve list and more people will learn the "real" meaning, and by then there will be blog posts debunking the pet peeve, because everyone uses it to mean noisy troublemaker, and there you have it.

  5. boynamedsue said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    Robert Coren is probably correct with the "riff-raff" connection, the speaker feels a need for alliteration, and grabs the wrong expression.

    I thought that this was perhaps a US only development, but the "raise a rabble" Gilchrist example is clearly Australian (he is talking about the cricketeer Adam Gilchrist).

    I suspect the writer here is "riff-raffising" another expression, maybe "raise a racket" or "raise a ruckus".

  6. derek sellen said,

    January 4, 2009 @ 10:43 am

    I'm not sure that rabble-rouser has shifted its meaning too much in the UK. A quick google of British references sees it applied to Desmond Tutu ( positively as 'a rabble-rouser for peace'), a left-wing comedian well known for activism, an 'Islamic rabblerouser', a Scottish Protestant demagogue, an animal rights activist and so on. As in the case of Tutu, it often seems to be worn as a badge of honour.

  7. ajay said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    It's a badge of honour only because it's part of an apparent oxymoron. It's like calling him, I don't know, bigoted against racists, or a fanatical democrat.

    I suppose that someone who preaches extremist Jewish religious doctrine might be a rabbi-rouser?

  8. alex boulton said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

    "Rabble-rouser" gets 300K Google hits, while "rebel-rouser" gets 100K. Is there an eggcorn in here somewhere?

    Geoff Nunberg said: No, only a British beat group that opened for the Beatles, a 1970 Jack Nicholson movie, and a great Duane Eddy song

  9. Chris said,

    January 5, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    It's a badge of honour only because it's part of an apparent oxymoron.
    I disagree: it can also be a badge of honor (of whichever spelling) because some of those formerly regarded as rabble now regard that judgment as reflecting poorly on the judges rather than the judged. If the rabble are proud of their status in opposition to the snobs, so too should the rabble-rousers be.

  10. Joshua said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 6:46 am

    Although the use of rabble-rouser in connection to Mr. Toussie's fence seems clearly wrong, most of the other examples ("raise a rabble" excluded) don't seem particularly strange. Rabble-rouser's roots are in agitation after all, and while not all these examples include a person agitating others into behaving badly many of them imply it in reference to drug use, huge parties, noisy tenants, etc. The "rabble-rouser" in the apartment next door, for example, almost certainly isn't alone by himself playing disco records. Noisy people tend to attract their noisy friends, thus rousing the rabble. Sure, in such a group setting, only one or two of the group are likely to be rousing while the rest are just the rabble. But I think there is a direct connection between "one who agitates the masses" and one who "causes (general) agitation", especially in reference to even a relatively small mass of people.

  11. Ginger Yellow said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 6:57 am

    I add my anecdotal support to Derek's point about British usage. I've never seen it used to mean anything other than an agitator.

    Incidentally, whenever the townsfolk in South Park act like a mob or, um, a rabble, they all start shouting : "Rabble, rabble, rabble".

  12. David Harmon said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

    Ginger Yellow: That last is probably a riff or in-joke on "rhubarb". Supposedly, "rhubarb" came to mean an argument or fight, by way of the old-time radio shows — when they needed the sound of an angry crowd, they'd have someone muttering the word over and over in the background.

  13. ajay said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    Which would explain its use in the RAF circa 1942, when a "rhubarb" was a low-level fighter sweep – a few fighters flying over occupied France, basically looking for trouble.

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