\ ˈrif How to pronounce riff (audio) \

Definition of riff

 (Entry 1 of 3)

1 : an ostinato phrase (as in jazz) typically supporting a solo improvisation also : a piece based on such a phrase
2 : a rapid energetic often improvised verbal outpouring especially : one that is part of a comic performance
3 : a succinct usually witty comment
4 : a distinct variation : take a disturbing … riff on the Cinderella story— Daria Donnelly


verb (1)
riffed; riffing; riffs

Definition of riff (Entry 2 of 3)

intransitive verb

: to perform, deliver, or make use of a riff


verb (2)
riffed; riffing; riffs

Definition of riff (Entry 3 of 3)

: riffle, skim riff pages

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Synonyms for riff

Synonyms: Noun

interpretation, take, variation

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Examples of riff in a Sentence


He stole that riff from another song. a mock news program with humorous riffs on current events

Recent Examples on the Web: Noun

It's sometimes sipped from tiny clay copitas, and is very often mixed into spicy, smokey, savory riffs on a margarita. Sara-mae Albert, ELLE Decor, "How to Be the Ultimate Weekend Host for Out-of-Town Guests," 15 May 2019 Here is the part of Trump’s riff about Democrats that is correct: There is, in fact, a bill that Feinstein has written that every Democrat in the Senate has signed on to. Dara Lind, Vox, "Anatomy of a lie: where Trump’s fictitious “Open Borders Bill” comes from," 8 Oct. 2018 At a West Virginia event on tax reform last week, Trump began drifting into a riff about Democrats rigging elections. John Myers, latimes.com, "Deconstructing Trump’s whopper about California voter fraud," 8 Apr. 2018 For those looking for something more casual, Noodlehead in the upscale Shadyside neighborhood is serving up riffs on traditional Thai street market fare. Carrie Goldberg, Harper's BAZAAR, "The Ultimate Guide to Pittsburgh, America's Most Underrated City," 17 Aug. 2016 Hadid wore a velour bomber—a clever riff on the traditional flight jacket—which elevated the simple ribbed tank underneath. Edward Barsamian, Vogue, "Bella Hadid Rejects the Beige Trend for a New Fall Neutral," 7 Nov. 2018 Take the Raising Hell, for instance—a riff on the traditional El Diablo that brings mezcal, spiced raisin syrup, and apples into the mix. Andrea Bennett, Condé Nast Traveler, "17 Best Bars in Las Vegas," 4 Mar. 2018 The most common patterns are various riffs on square motifs, though more unconventional takes, like sunbursts or medallions, also count. Hadley Keller, House Beautiful, "Parquet Flooring: What Exactly Is it?," 15 Apr. 2019 In another riff on pesto Trapanese, Jason Pfeifer of Maialino and Manhatta in Manhattan nods to the Sicilian love of agrodolce (sweet-sour), adding golden raisins and mint. Aleksandra Crapanzano, WSJ, "6 Fresh Takes on Pesto," 3 Aug. 2018

Recent Examples on the Web: Verb

Plus his improv game was on point, riffing off seasoned comedians Wong, Park, and Vivian Bang as Marcus’ hippie girlfriend Jenny, who’s equally smitten with Reeves. Jen Yamato, Twin Cities, "Keanu Reeves’ ‘Always Be My Maybe’ role has everyone obsessing. Here’s why.," 3 June 2019 Always one to dress for the occasion, the Duchess of Cambridge decided to play up the holiday’s signature pastel color palette, choosing an ensemble that riffed off Easter egg blues—and recycling an old favorite in the process. Vogue, "Kate Middleton Recycles an Old Favorite for Easter Service," 21 Apr. 2019 That’s a common problem with projects that riff heavily on existing formulas in the name of satire. Bryan Bishop, The Verge, "The Happytime Murders tests the limits of subverting nostalgia," 24 Aug. 2018 But, Snider's small-scale collages, with shapes that riff on interiors, were a perfect addition. Hadley Keller, House Beautiful, "A Genius Trick to Hang Art Without a Frame," 16 May 2019 Per The Hollywood Reporter, the number was inspired by the long-running San Francisco musical revue show Beach Blanket Babylon, in which performers dress up as characters and perform satirical songs riffing on contemporary pop culture. Emma Dibdin, Harper's BAZAAR, "Why the 2019 Oscars Don't Have a Host—And the Disaster That Ensued Last Time It Happened," 24 Feb. 2019 No, this isn’t riffing on the classic joke that when two women start seeing each other, the second date involves renting a U-Haul to move in together. Sophie Saint Thomas, SELF, "9 Things to Know Before You Try Strap-On Sex," 2 Mar. 2019 Meanwhile, Cuarón and his older brother Carlos — with whom he co-wrote the screenplay — take advantage of their scoundrel antihero’s job and proclivities to riff on TV commercials, and to document yuppie life in early 1990s Mexico. Noel Murray, The Verge, "The first film by Roma director Alfonso Cuarón is streaming on Netflix," 23 Nov. 2018 For years comedians, creators, writers, social media commentators, and the new ways of entertainment have only proved MST3K's central thesis—watching and riffing on films is a pastime best spent with friends. Bryan Lufkin, Popular Mechanics, "Can Mystery Science Theater 3000 Thrive in an Age of Snark?," 14 Apr. 2017

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'riff.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of riff


1935, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Verb (1)

1948, in the meaning defined above

Verb (2)

1952, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for riff


probably by shortening & alteration from refrain

Verb (2)

short for riffle

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Dictionary Entries near riff



rife with




riffle file

Statistics for riff

Last Updated

12 Jun 2019

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for riff

The first known use of riff was in 1935

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More Definitions for riff



English Language Learners Definition of riff

music : a short and usually repeated pattern of notes in a song
US, informal : a short set of comments on a particular subject

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Comments on riff

What made you want to look up riff? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


incapable of being surmounted or overcome

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