This word is used to describe people at the bottom of the social heap. It’s easy to tell that the term is a long-standing insult because there are actually 18 alternative spellings listed in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The term ‘riff-raff’ probably arose in France. As early as 1326, the Annales Paulini (chronicles of the reigns of Edward I and Edward II) record the French term ‘rifler’ with the meaning of ‘robber.’ The Anglo-Norman word ‘raf’ was used in the French moral text The Debate between the Body and the Soul, circa 1330, where the term was undefined but generally used to belittle. The seems to derive from the French verb ‘raffler,’ which means to ravage or snatch away. It is also possible that the two words ‘rif’ and ‘raf’ were simply semi-rhyming variants of each other.
The ‘riff-raff’ version that we use now appears in Gregory’s Chronicle, circa 1470. Translated into modern English, the quote says, “Many men were murdered and killed in that fight. I don’t know how to describe it due to the large number of riff-raff.”
It is obvious, then, by the 15th century, ‘riff-raff’ related to people and was derogatory.
A much later theory about the origin of the term comes from the United States at a time when the Mississippi River was the main way of traveling from north to south. River boats carried passengers and freight but were expensive so most people used rafts, which were considered cheap. The steering oar on the rafts was called a ‘riff’ and this was combined with ‘raff’ (derived from ‘raft’) into riff-raff, meaning low class. However, the evidence for a much earlier origin in Europe pretty much negates that theory.
The offshoot term ‘raffish’ has stayed in the language, though this has shaken off its original meaning of disreputable or vulgar, for someone who is a member of the raff-raff’. It has now become an almost complimentary term for someone who is attractively mischievous or stylishly rakish.
Being raffish sounds like fun, but I can’t quite figure out how to do it while dressed in tatty jeans and an old sweatshirt and sitting at a computer keyboard.