The OED entry for RUFFLER, n1 -- "1. Esp. in the 16th and 17th centuries: a member of a class of vagabonds and rogues" -- has a first citation from 1535. However, in the C-text of Piers Plowman, we find the line: "Robert the ruyflare / on reddite lokede," (Huntington MS Hm 143) where "ruyflare" replaces "robbere" of the A and B MSS.

My question is whether it's possible that this occurrence in Piers Plowman may be an earlier example of the word.

(To complicate matters, OED (following the MED) under RIFLER, n1: "1. A robber, a plunderer, a looter," cites this line, but with a different form -- "ryfeler" -- from a different manuscript: (Huntington HM 137) (1873) C. vii. 316 (MED), Roberd the ryfeler [v.r. riflere] on reddite lokede.)

  • Any spelling in English books/letters prior to about 1800 is suspect. There were no dictionaries and people spelled words however they wished. And in the above citations spelling was likely copied forward from older work, as the original poem was written prior to 1400.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 5, 2017 at 0:33
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    Indeed. The date of composition of the C-Text of <i>Piers Plowman</i> is the late 1380s, and HM 143 reflects this. The source of the term(s) is Anglo-Norman, and part of my problem is that I don't know enough about Anglo-Norman orthography and phonology to be sure of the significance of the "uy" digraph in Anglo-Norman, and how this might impinge on the form "ruyfler". Jun 5, 2017 at 1:09
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    Meant to add this: I'd be happy to take "ruyfler" at face value (HM 143 is considered the best of the C-Text MSS) and simply say it links to the later "ruffler", but I'm afraid I might be missing something. (Also, the earliest English dictionaries date from the sixteenth century, well before the eighteenth, and English spelling was never entirely [or even predominantly] arbitrary.) Jun 5, 2017 at 1:18
  • You clearly haven't spent much time climbing through old texts in Ngram. Up until around 1800 the same word might be spelled three different ways in the same text.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 5, 2017 at 1:52
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    Spelling variants existed (and still do) but there were [strong] constraints. Here, one of the issues is that in the period under consideration i/y were virtual graphic variants. Rather than Ngram, if you want a quick sense of how spelling manifested from about 1670 on, check out the Old Bailey Online, which has a massive series of trial transcripts which provide a powerful snapshot. As to pre-1800 dictionaries, check out Lexicons of Early Modern English (online). Then there's the dialect issue (HM 143 probably reflect Southwest Somerset rather than London English) ... Jun 5, 2017 at 2:04

2 Answers 2


I think it's a variant form of "rifler". According to the OED rifle v.1 page, ruyfle is a variant spelling used in ME. You can find several instances of this word in the manuscript, such as this one:

To robbe me or to ruyfle me yf y ryde softe.

It's not that big of a jump from ruyfle to ruyflare. According to OED, the -are ending is a Middle English variation of -er. (However, I don't know what the significance of spelling it ruyfle in the first place is.)

  • This is close to what I'm thinking myself, and if nothing further comes up, I'll go with it. The problem is that it doesn't quite resolve whether the later 1530 "ruffler" links to "rifler" (a robber/thief) or "ruffle" (swagger). The OED entry for RUFFLE, v manages to miss Piers Plowman entirely, and both that and RUFFLER are flagged as "etymology obscure", so deriving RUFFLER from RUFFLE on their part isn't much help. Also, as they totally fail to consider a possible RIFLER/RUFFLER connection, I'm dubious as to whether all the spelling variants for early RIFLER can be taken at face value. Jun 5, 2017 at 18:31
  • The starting point for the whole mess is clearly Old French "rifler" a thief/to steal, but somewhere in the middle are a whole slew of Anglo-Norman terms which may be either spelling variants or distinct terms. Add to which, the first OED citation for RUFFLER -- "1535 Act 27 Hen. VIII c. 25 Idell..persons, ruffelers, callynge them selues saruing men" -- is, as far as I can see, NOT to that particular Act/Statute, or at least it's not in Ruffhead's STATUTES AT LARGE. It's probably from a memorandum written a year before the Statute was passed. An absolute and total mass of confusion ... Jun 5, 2017 at 18:40
  • As one last point, why I'm concerned with this at all ... My main area of interest/study is Cant (criminal speech), where Ruffler (as one of the Order of Vagabonds) figures largely. As far as I know, current work in this area totally ignores Piers Plowman, while I'm becoming more and more convinced that, not just in the case of Ruffler, a connection with (especially the C-text of) Piers Plowman can't or shouldn't be ignored. Thanks for your helpful comment -- I feel at least I'm not totally off the wall here. And thanks for reminding me of the PP Concordance. Jun 5, 2017 at 18:47

As Laurel said, it’s likely that <ruyflare> is an alternative spelling of the word rifler. And it seems to be unclear whether the word rifler is related to the word ruffler.

The OED traces ruffler back to the verb ruffle, which is says is of uncertain origin, although it does hint at the possibility of a connection with the note “With sense 6 compare rifle v.1” (the verb corresponding to rifler).

The verb rifle is supposed to be “< Anglo-Norman ryffler, rofler, rufler, rufeler” (OED); some of these variants that look like they could give rise to a form “ruffle,” and in fact the OED lists, among the attested English spelling variants that it classifies as forms of rifle, v.1, the β forms “[Scottish] pre-17 rufle” and “[Scottish] pre-17 ruffell”, but it’s apparently unclear if this is the origin of the words ruffle/ruffler.

The spelling <ruyflare> is likely to indicate a vowel in the first syllable that is the same as the reflex (in some M.E. accent) of Old English /yː/. According to Notes on English Etymology by Walter William Skeat (1904):

The ui in build is a southern M. E. symbol for the M. E. sound arising from A. S. ȳ, due in this instance to a (temporary) lengthening of A. S. y before ld. Cf. bruise from A. S. -brȳsan (in tō-brȳsan); and buy from late A. S. , for A. S. byg- in byg-eth, pr. s. of bycgan.

(this quote was found by Ricky for his answer to the following question: Why is "build" spelt with a "u"?)

The phonetic quality represented by this digraph seems a bit hard to determine; note that “build”, “bruise” and “buy” all have different vowels in modern English due to dialect mixing, and this source of variability existed already in Middle English. So perhaps the scribe wrote “ruyflare” but pronounced [riːflər], or perhaps [ruːflər]. I don't know if there is any way to make an educated guess about this; possibly an examination of the use of the digraph "uy/ui" in other parts of the manuscript would be fruitful.


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