Does the expression "riffs on" mean that the two men are clichés of gangsters films in the sentence "At the heart of the film are two young men who are riffs on gangsters-films archetypes"?


  • According to the Cambridge Dictionary: something that is slightly different to the usual form. See examples there dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/riff – RubioRic Apr 21 at 12:23
  • Thanks, I didn't have this definition in the dictionary I use. Henceforth I'll check the Cambridge dictionary. – Jérôme Apr 21 at 12:26

The original meaning of the verb to riff off came from jazz, where it specifically meant to borrow and elaborate on (a musical phrase) - as opposed to to rip off (which simply means to steal).

That slang verb usage has been "nounified" in OP's example, where the intended meaning is that the two young men in question dress and act like archetypal / stereotypical gangsters as portrayed in movies.

It's not a common usage (certainly not an "established expression"), but it would probably be understood by most native speakers. I wouldn't advise non-native speakers to imitate the style though.

Note that gangsters-films archetypes is not an idiomatically acceptable sequence in English. Syntactically speaking those three nouns (the first two used "adjectivally") should appear in the sequence film gangster archetypes, with no hyphens. The "head" noun is archetypes, but we're specifically talking about archetypes of gangsters - even more specifically, gangsters in films.

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    What's wrong with ‘gangster-film archetypes’ — meaning archetypes of the sort you'd find in a gangster film? Here ‘gangster-film’ is a compound noun modifier, applied to ‘archetypes’, and so a hyphen is usual. – gidds Apr 21 at 22:37
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    I would agree with @gidds for "gangster-film archetypes", but "gangster" must be singular in this case. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Apr 22 at 6:38
  • @chrylis-onstrike-, gidds:: I thought about extending that final "Note" as I was writing it, but decided not to because the actual question was about riffs, not the following noun phrase. But if I had extended it, that would have been specifically to point out that such "noun adjunct" usages (gangster, film) are normally (always?) singular forms. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Apr 22 at 12:32

The term archetype (pronounced ark-i-type) comes from the ancient Greek: arch (ἀρχ-) which means top, overall, above, master - as in archangel (a "ruling" angel, like Gabriel or Michael), archcriminal (a master criminal, like Lex Luthor), archfiend (like "The Joker" in Batman) - and even the arch of a doorway.

An archetype is a master Type - like the ideal form of whatever being/creature/object is being discussed.

The ancient philosopher Plato had the idea that somewhere there is a "perfect form" (an archetype) of each and every object. For example, we see a crooked chair and we immediately understand that it is different from what the perfect chair would be. He called this idea the theory of forms.

So, adding to the excellent first part of the answer by FumbleFingers, above, in which that writer describes the jazz origins of the term riff, we see that these two young men were trying to riff off of the perfect form of the [Hollywood] gangster.

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  • Thanks! We have the same word, "archetype", in French! – Jérôme Apr 21 at 18:55
  • I think if you're going to give an extensive definition of the word archetype (not central to the OP's question, I feel), you should at least spell it correctly! I'd also say that I think whoever wrote OP's text was essentially "showing off" using a word he didn't actually know all that well. I'm pretty certain the intended meaning for the cited context would be more accurately conveyed using the word stereotype (which I think doesn't exist in French! :) – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Apr 21 at 19:58
  • Hey, that's quite a comment. Nonetheless, thank you for the correction. In fact, I do have about three years of formal classical Greek plus several years of sort-of keeping up with it. Hasn't helped my spelling, though... But you might want to look up the word petulance – cssyphus Apr 21 at 20:43
  • Only the first sentence in my comment was intended to criticise you! And barely that anyway - I just couldn't resist the light-hearted dig when I saw Jérôme's correctly spelled version (perhaps I should have ended it with a smiley instead of a shriek! :) But I stand by the second point ("le mot juste" here is stereotype, not archetype), which I think is borne out by the fact that Jérôme has correctly guessed that the young men represent clichés. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Apr 22 at 11:24

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