Don’t Let It Rankle

bird preening

The other day I heard a sports journalist make a case on the radio for paying salaries to student athletes. He admitted that the issue is controversial and it might “rankle people’s feathers.”

I’m not sure what it would look like to “rankle” someone’s feathers. In fact, I don’t do well imagining people with feathers at all, unless they’re nine feet tall, bright yellow, and birdlike.

The idiom this journalist was reaching for, I believe, was “ruffling feathers.” Birds, evidently, don’t like to have their feathers tousled. Some species spend a great deal of time preening, perhaps for the purpose of attracting members of the opposite sex. If something or someone interferes with the birds’ careful grooming, they become understandably cross. Human beings, likewise, resent others’ attempts to disarrange things—their plans, their ideas, their preconceptions, and their feathers, I suppose, if they are wearing any. So, yes, paying salaries to student athletes would certainly ruffle a lot of metaphorical feathers.

Feathers can be ruffled but they can’t be rankled. This is due in part to the fact that rankle is an intransitive verb; it doesn’t take an object. If something doesn’t sit well with me, it rankles. It doesn’t rankle me. It doesn’t rankle anybody else. It just rankles. Period.

“To rankle” is to cause annoyance or unease. Let’s say you get caught jaywalking and you’re assessed a $25 fine. You admit you broke the law; you grit your teeth and pay the fine; but still… it rankles.

Rankle comes to us through Middle English from an Old French word that meant “festering sore,” from an even older Latin word—draco, meaning “serpent.” So I suggest that, if something rankles in your universe, you do whatever is necessary to get it out of your system before it festers and turns venomous. Herpetophobics everywhere will thank you.

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