Both "riffle" and "rifle" mean to go through something. So what's the difference?
The other day on Twitter, I said I was going to riffle through the medicine cabinet looking for something to soothe a wicked headache, and someone corrected me saying that I was actually rifling through my medicine cabinet. My headache went away, but my curiosity about these two words didn’t, so I looked them up as my mother always encouraged me to do.
Both verbs, “riffle” and “rifle,” mean to go through something, but there’s a subtle difference.
When you're riffling, you're hastily flipping through something or shuffling cards by interlacing them. For example, mathematicians say it takes seven riffle shuffles to sufficiently randomize a single deck of cards.
Although the Oxford English Dictionary says the origin of “riffle” is uncertain, one theory is that it’s a blend between “ripple” and “ruffle.”
Here’s an example of how you’d use “riffle”:
As she riffled through the dictionary, she found a hidden note.
The wind can also riffle your hair or riffle water to create riffles or ripples.
When you're rifling, you're searching frantically or ransacking, usually meaning to steal something. “Rifle” is from the Old French word for "steal or plunder."
Here’s an example of how you’d use “rifle”:
I could tell he had rifled through my dresser drawers.
As a noun, a rifle is also a weapon. The kind of weapon I think of when I hear the word “rifle” is a long gun that you hold up against your shoulder to shoot, although apparently it can also be a type of artillery; and I had never thought about why it was called a rifle before, but when I was researching this segment, I learned that the name comes from the spiral grooves inside the barrel that make the bullets spin when they’re fired. Those grooves are also called rifles.
Since a rifle is a gun and someone might use a gun in a robbery, your Quick and Dirty Tip is to remember that to rifle is to ransack a place while looking for something to steal, and “riffle” is the nicer word that means to flip through or shuffle things.