Feathers are “Ruffled,” Not “Rankled”

Bird with ruffled feathers
Bird with ruffled feathers

This morning in an NPR segment about the alleged exploitation of college basketball players, I heard a man say, “It rankles feathers.”

I believe he was reaching for the idiom to ruffle one’s feathers.



Ruffle has various meanings. As a verb, it means “to disarrange or disturb.” Here are examples of its literal use:

It always annoyed him when his aunt ruffled his hair.

The setter brought me the bird without ruffling a single feather.

The breeze ruffled the grasses in the meadow.

The figurative expression “to ruffle one’s feathers” means, “to annoy someone.”


The verb to rankle is used figuratively to mean “to cause pain”: “His loss to the other candidate still rankles.”

Rankle came into English from the Old French noun rancle, meaning “an ulcer or a festering sore.”

As a verb, rankle means, “to fester to a degree that causes pain.”

Rankle is an intransitive verb. An intransitive verb does not take an object. That means that things can rankle, but you can’t rankle anything, not even feathers.

To my surprise, when I did a web search for the misuse of rankle for ruffle in the feather idiom, I discovered that the speaker on NPR has company.

Here are just a few of the examples I came across.

With These Words, I Hereby Rankle Your Feathers

Does it Rankle anyone else’s feathers to hear a Politician use the words…”My worthy Opponent…”?

Mr Assange has certainly rankled a few feathers in his endeavors.

[T]he name Old Colony as pertained [sic] to Puerto Rico failed to rankle feathers because things were going swimmingly with the island’s economy.

Few topics rankle the feathers of the video game enthusiast these days quite like that of pre-order

I can only mutter, with the Professor in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.”