If You Are “Ravenous,” You Aren’t Like a Raven

It occurred to me the other day that ravens, while mischievous and intelligent, aren’t terribly well-known for having enormous appetites. So wherefore “ravenous”?

Turns out it’s actually related to “ravine,” as in the geographical feature—a deep, narrow gorge.

“Ravenous” originally meant “extremely greedy” or “obsessed with plundering” in the 14th century, and was later figuratively extended to actual hunger. It is from the Old French ravinos, which could be used to describe people who were aggressively greedy or violent, or to describe fast-moving water.

Similarly, the Old French ravine was a word for a person violently rushing forward, or a violent rush of water (or the gorge/gully created by one), from the Latin rapina, the act of violent robbery or plundering. The idea was that the violent water “plundered” the earth, with the sense also influenced by “rapid” as in “fast” (or fast-moving water).

Okay, cool, but ravens are clever and prone to theft, so the word “raven” is probably related to these plundering-related origins as well, right?

Nope. Raven is from the Old English hræfn, ultimately from the PIE root *ker-, which is meant to imitate their harsh calls and is also the original source of “crow.”

That said, I’d be willing to bet that there was some cross-pollination among spellings of words like raven, ravenous, reave/reaver (from Old English reafian “to rob, plunder”), and ravening.

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