The past few weeks, we’ve been hearing about the epic rains that have hit Texas and Louisiana. It’s been devastating—more than 27 trillion gallons of rain were dumped on the region in just six days. While at the same time, on the other side of the world, people were dying from floods in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and now we’re watching Hurricane Irma wreak havoc.
Although it’s a small matter compared to the actual flooding, hearing all the news got us thinking about the role that rain plays in our language. For example, we talk about scheduling events “rain or shine”—meaning we’ll hold them no matter the weather. On the other hand, we talk of events being rained out—canceled because of weather. We have “rain boots,” more poetically known as “galoshes,” “gumboots,” or “Wellingtons.” And we have “rain coats,” also called “slickers” and “sou’westers.”
We also use several idioms related to rain.
Here are a few you’ll recognize.
Saving for a Rainy Day
First, there’s the expression “to save for a rainy day.” This phrase means to save money while you can—as protection against some future time when you can’t. The “rainy day” in this expression refers to a time of trouble or scarcity.
This phrase can be traced all the way back to 1580, when it was used in a comic play called “The Bugbears” in the line, “Would he have me keep nothing against a rainy day”?
Rain on One’s Parade
Rain also takes a negative cast in the expression “to rain on someone’s parade.” This phrase means to spoil someone’s plans. Imagine you were planning on spending the weekend at the beach, but your boss tells you at the last minute that you have to work on Saturday. You could say that he “rained on your parade.”
This expression evokes the image of a celebration, like a parade or a picnic, being ruined by an unexpected downpour.
This phrase is relatively new to our language. You may have heard it first in the 1964 musical “Funny Girl.” Barbara Streisand sung “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on the stage and in the film adaptation.
Next, there’s the less obvious phrase “to give someone a rain check.” You can use this expression if someone invites you to an event that you can’t attend, but you’d like to reschedule. For example, if a friend invited you to the movies on a night you had to study, you could say this: “I can’t go Thursday, but can I give you a rain check for next week?”
This term comes from baseball. In the 1880s, when a ballgame was rained out, patrons got a “rain check” that gave them free admission to a future game. In the early 1900s, this term was extended to other types of events and then to sales. For example, if you tried to buy an item that was advertised as being on sale—but the store was out of stock—the storekeeper could give you a rain check. It would let you buy the item later for the sale price.
Next we have “rainmaker,” a term that finally puts rain in a positive light. A rainmaker is someone who secures income for a business or organization. It might be a partner who brings in prestigious clients. A salesperson who closes lucrative deals. Or a volunteer who raises millions of dollars for a charity.
The term “rainmaker” originally referred to someone who could literally cause rain, either through spiritual or supernatural means. When your life depends on growing food—and growing food depends on rain—a rainmaker would be someone who brought value beyond any amount of money.
The literal use of this term can be traced back to 1775; the figurative use, to bring in money, began more than 100 years later, in 1897.
Raining Cats and Dogs
Finally, there’s a mystery idiom—the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs.” We know this means that there’s a real downpour.
But where do the cats and dogs come in?
One explanation lies in mythologies that associate cats with rain and dogs with wind. (Think of witches and cats riding broomstick on a stormy night, for example, or dogs and wolves standing guard beside Odin, the storm god.)
Another explanation is more practical. In days less sanitary than today, overpowering rainstorms might have dislodged all kinds of debris from gutters—including dead dogs or cats. (Hey, it could have happened!) Live cats and dogs also could have been washed off slick thatched roofs.
Whether either of these allusions is correct remains a mystery. All we know is that the term’s first recorded use was in 1652, in a play called “The City Wit.” In that instance, it was said to rain “dogs and polecats and so forth.”
I hope you enjoyed hearing about all these rain-related terms. We send a big shout out to all our listeners in Texas, Louisiana, and South Asia. We hope you’re safe and dry.
Images courtesy of Shutterstock.
Ammer, Christine. Rain cats and dogs; rain check; rain on one’s parade; rain or shine; rain out; rainy day. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
Dent, Susie. Rain cats and dogs; rain check; rain on someone’s parade; put something by for a rainy day. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.