My friend Peter and I were playing a friendly game of Scrabble the other night — which for the record he won, through a very well-placed squish late in the game. We don’t formally challenge words, but we do informally challenge them, at which point we pull out my big American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) to see what we can learn. We had already determined that ga is not in this dictionary, and fay has three different entries.
I then played riven. There was no question about its wordiness, but as I played it, I suddenly wondered (aloud), “What is riven the past participle of?” (Yes, this is what it is like to play Scrabble with me.) I paused. “It is clearly a past participle,” I added. “It has to be. Rive? Does anybody rive?”
“Rift?” Peter threw out there. “But no, can’t be. That’s a noun.” (But he is right that it is etymologically related.)
Luckily, a dictionary was at hand, and there was the verb:
rive … —tr. 1. To rend or tear apart. 2. To break into pieces, as by a blow; cleave, or split asunder. 3. To break or distress (the spirit, for example). —intr. To be or become split.
It’s an old Scandinavian borrowing into English, with a regular past tense rived and a past participle riven. But as I said, Does anybody rive? Or anything for that matter? I had to know.
I did manage to wait until after the game was over, but then off I went to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). Had Peter and I just missed all the people out there riving?
It looks unlikely, if COCA is representative. The past participle riven seems to have a life of its own, thriving (relatively speaking) while the base verb languishes. There are 361 instances of riven in COCA, including phrases/sentences such as the following:
- “a team that has been riven by dissent”
- “In a nation that often appears riven by religion as much as politics”
- “the old oak riven when lightning strikes above”
- “The icebergs’ walls were riven by small waterfalls”
The COCA data show that things are riven both physically and metaphorically — and mostly in writing as opposed to speech.
But almost no one is riving. Of the 23 instances of riving in COCA, almost all of them are typos for living. There is one clear use of riving to refer to splitting apart: “the ideological split riving the nation.” There is also a reference to “riving pain.” I’m not sure what to make of the one NPR transcript that refers to “muddy bodies riving about on a 700-acre farm” at a rock festival in Tennessee. Might they be writhing?
There are no instances of to rive in COCA (the two hits are typos), and of the 31 tokens of rived, all but two are typos (for lived, river, and riveted) or the second part of a hyphenated arrived or derived. The one “true” instance of rived is, interestingly, a past participle: “an industry rived with conflicts of industry.” (As readers know, I think COCA is an invaluable resource. It is a reminder, though, of the importance of checking for typos and other false hits in the data.)
So what rives? Not much, from what I can tell. Not anywhere close to the number of things that are riven. The past participle riven may well outlive the base verb rive, which all in all doesn’t look healthy. But I tuck away the knowledge that rive would still count in Scrabble.