rugged v ragged

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a setting of Dorothea Mackellar’s poem ‘My country’. On the first few times through, I stumbled on one word, which I then realised was “ragged mountain ranges”, not “rugged mountain ranges” as I vaguely remembered. When I got home, I looked online. Wikipedia has an image of Mackellar’s original notebook, which clearly has ragged. Many sources, printed and digital, have rugged, though. Two rehearsals ago, our accompanist said she’d always thought it was rugged, and at the rehearsal this week, one singer brought a book of Australian poems for school children, which has rugged. The accompanist said there is a recording of Mackellar reciting it, which I found (one of the available videos). She clearly says ragged. Very noticeable is her Sottish-tinged accent* (her grandparents had come to Australia almost 50 years before she was born).

Overall, rugged mountain ranges are more common than ragged ones and the publication of the poem in 1908 did nothing to boost the usage of the latter. rugged and ragged are one example of a pair of words differing by one letter which make just as much sense, at least in this context. In other contexts, there is a very different meaning: compare his rugged appearance and his ragged appearance. Individualism, mountain(s), hills, country, cliffs, rocks, path, road and sides (?of mountains) are more likely to be rugged and edge(s), clothes, appearance, coat, children, boy(s), staff and schools to be ragged.

I was surprised to see that rugged individualism has only been a thing since the 1920s.** links it to US president Herbert Hoover; it predates his presidency by five years, but he was a public figure long before that. Ragged schools “were charitable organisations dedicated to the free education of destitute children in nineteenth-century Britain” and a ragged staff is either “a staff with knobs on each side” (Merriam-Webster doesn’t explain the significance of the knobs or the staves) or one of several pubs in England, and the Ragged Staff Gates “are a set of city gates in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar”. I was expecting ragged staff to be the teachers at ragged schools.

Note that rugged and ragged are both pronounced as two syllables here. In “The rugged boys from the public school, rugged-up against the cold, ragged the boys from the ragged schools”, the two italicised words are pronounced as one syllable.

[update: * I wasn’t sure whether to refer to her “Scottish accent”, and considered “Scottish-influenced” and “Scottish-infused” before settling on “Scottish-tinged”.

** I’d better clarify. The phrase was in use, if rare, before the 1920s, but rapidly gained in usage then.

After I posted this, I started wondering what rugged actually means. Ragged is obviously related to rags, but rugged is not obviously related to rugs. It is – traces it as “1300–50; Middle English < Scandinavian; compare Swedish rugga to roughen (of cloth)” and rug as “1545–55; < Old Norse rǫgg wool, long hairs; compare Norwegian rugga covering of coarse wool, Swedish rugg coarse hair”. In other words, things (and possibly people) were rugged before there were rugs

Rag is
“1275–1325; Middle English ragge < Scandinavian; compare Norwegian, Swedish ragg coarse hair < Old Norse rǫgg”. I’m confused by those “compare”s. Does that mean the words are related, or not?


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