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The meaning and origin of the expression: Raze to the ground

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Raze to the ground

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Meaning

To destroy and sweep completely away.

Origin

The expression 'raze to the ground', like 'bated breath' and 'just deserts', is often spelled incorrectly. The sources of these misunderstandings are the homophones 'bated' and 'baited', 'deserts' and 'desserts' and, in 'raze to the ground', 'raze' and 'raise'. Added to that is the fact that the correct spelling in each case is of an archaic word that is rarely used elsewhere.

Razed to the groundAs a child, I heard stories of WWII and of cities like Dresden and Hiroshima being, as I thought, 'raised to the ground'. That seemed odd to me. How could destroying them with bombs raise them? Were these cities underground? It makes a little more sense when we understand that 'raze' is the verb that gave rise to the noun 'razor'. What's being said is akin to 'razored (that is, shaved) to the ground'. It seems that others are similarly confused - there are currently (Oct 2009) many hits in Google for 'raise the the ground'.

Raze is hardly a common word now (in the UK at least - there is more use of it in other countries, notably the USA), but it was in the 16th century; for example, Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, used it in Aeneid II, 1547, in a context that makes the 'razored/erased' meaning evident:

"I saw Troye fall down in burning gledes. Neptunus town clene razed from the soil."

Shakespeare also used it in Henry VI, Part II, 1592:

"These are his substance, sinewes, armes, and strength, With which he ... Razeth your Cities, and subverts your Townes."

The earliest example that I can find of the precise 'raze to the ground' form is in The Glory of England, written by Thomas Gainsford in 1620:

"King Lewis held nothing in Italy but the lanterne of Genes, which afterward the Genouais razed to the ground."

If you invite your neighbours to a barn raising, you had better get the spelling right, or the consequences might be unfortunate.

See also, 'beck and call'.

See other phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.