To ravage is to pillage, sack, or devastate. The only time “ravaging” is properly used is in phrases like “When the pirates had finished ravaging the town, they turned to ravishing the women.” Which brings us to “ravish”: meaning to rape or rob violently. A trailer court can be ravaged by a storm (nothing is stolen, but a lot of damage is done), but not ravished. The crown jewels of Ruritania can be ravished (stolen using violence) without being ravaged (damaged).
To confuse matters, people began back in the 14th century to speak metaphorically of their souls being “ravished” by intense spiritual or aesthetic experiences. Thus we speak of a “ravishing woman” (the term is rarely applied to men) today not because she literally rapes men who look at her but because her devastating beauty penetrates their hearts in an almost violent fashion. Despite contemporary society’s heightened sensitivity about rape, we still remain (perhaps fortunately) unconscious of many of the transformations of the root meaning in words with positive connotations such as “rapturous.”
Originally, “raven” as a verb was synonymous with “ravish” in the sense of “to steal by force.” One of its specialized meanings became “devour,” as in “The lion ravened her prey.” By analogy, hungry people became “ravenous” (as hungry as beasts), and that remains the only common use of the word today.
If a woman smashes your apartment up, she ravages it. If she looks stunningly beautiful, she is ravishing. If she eats the whole platter of hors d’oeuvres you’ve set out for the party before the other guests come, she’s ravenous.
Paul Brians' alter-ego makes an appearance on the latest Common Errors in English Usage podcast.
This is the tenth year of the Common Errors in English Usage calendar. To celebrate, we are bringing back some of our favorite interesting, funny, but sometimes merely silly entries through the years before going on hiatus in 2016.
Enjoy the calendar? Buy the book!