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shameless pleading

Raising Cain

He’s baaack!

Dear Word Detective: A recent New York Times op-ed column included the phrase “raising Cain.” While I’ve heard the phrase before and understand it to mean “creating a disturbance” or something like that, I don’t understand what Cain has to do with it. Are we raising Cain as we would a child, and how does that make an immediate disturbance? Or are we raising Cain from the dead? (Which would undoubtedly create a disturbance, but different, I think, from what the expression intends.) When I was young and heard the phrase I envisioned cane fields and the people who grow (raise) cane, and it made no sense to me then — and still doesn’t. Or are we raising a cane (the walking stick) to bash and slash people? That would surely create a disturbance. I can’t find much on the phrase anywhere, except that Cain seems to be the accepted article to be raised. Maybe I just don’t know my Bible well enough, but could you explain how this phrase came to be? — Barney Johnson.

Good question, and you’ve done a thorough job of outlining the various possibilities. I like the one about raising one’s cane to bash people, but that may be because I have always had a soft spot for the stereotypical cranky codger shouting, “Hey kid, get off my lawn!” Of course, today most of those guys probably just stay inside and vent on their blogs.

I’m no Biblical scholar either, but in this case, while knowledge of the story of Cain and Abel is necessary to understanding “raising Cain,” it is not by itself sufficient to explain the phrase. To recap the relevant bits of the Bible, Cain and Abel were the first sons of Adam and Eve, and grew up to be a farmer and a shepherd, respectively. After God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but rejected Cain’s, Cain, in a fit of jealousy, murdered his younger brother. Cain was then condemned by God to wander in exile for the rest of his life and marked (with the “mark of Cain”) to prevent any other man from doing him harm.

However, as I said, that story doesn’t really explain the phrase “to raise Cain,” which means “to disrupt, to cause a disturbance, trouble or confusion” (“Topsy would hold a perfect carnival of confusion … in short, as Miss Ophelia phrased it, ‘raising Cain’ generally.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1862). “Raise Cain” invokes an older sense of “raise,” dating back to the 14th century, meaning “to summon or cause a spirit to appear by means of incantations” (as if “raised from the underworld”).

This sense of raise has also been used in a figurative sense of “create a disturbance” since the 18th century, with various “spirits” and other personifications of disorder being “raised” as the object of the phrase. Thus we have spoken of “raising the Devil” or “raising Ned” (an old folk name for the Devil), “to raise Hob” (a demon), and, still frequently, “to raise hell.” Specifying “Cain” in the phrase dates back to the early 19th century, and employs Cain as a symbol of the sinful side of human nature. All these phrases are more or less equivalent, but “raising Cain” may have remained popular because it has the advantage of not offending folks who would find “raising hell” a bit too strong.

12 comments to Raising Cain

  • Lisa

    Re: “raising Ned” (an old folk name for the Devil)

    Interesting that the hyper-religious character on the Simpsons is called Ned (and also that he always plays the devil on the Halloween episodes). Wonder if the writers were aware of this bit of folklore, or if it’s just a co-incidence?

  • Virginius L. Arnold IV

    RE: “raising cain”

    I am a native Mobilian, and always understood the phrase to come from Joe Cain, who reserected mardi gras after The War. He dressed as an indian , road his mule in the streets of Mobile, and hense the phrase. That is my uderstanding, I may be wrong.

  • Donna

    I share the opinion of the Mobilian in the above comment, but he needed to take it one step further. After the Civil War, with the mood depressed, Joe Cain took it upon himself the try to cheer up the populace by resuming the Mardi Gras celebrations that had been discontinued during the war. For many years after Mr Cain’s death the Mobilians would go to the cemetery and party near his grave with the intent of raising Joe Cain’s spirit.

  • Vern

    Just found this site in a search for “raising Ned.” I became curious about the phrase after hearing it in the old Disney film “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.” (So there is one reference for its use, if anyone is interested.)

    Another curious thing, though, was in searching for the source of the phrase if found many pages talking about the movied “Raising Ned Devine.” Now in the US, that movie was called “Waking Ned Devine,” but it must go by the previous name in some other countries. After reading the source of the phrase, I wonder if the makers of the movie deliberately chose the pun of “raising Ned,” since the movie is about a community trying to make a dead guy look alive (so they can claim his lottery winnings).

  • Michael

    I’m an educator of high school English students who just read a sweeping work of psychology called “Raising Cain: Protecting the emotional life of boys”. The authors, Drs. Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, open with the Biblical allusion of Cain and Abel as a pattern the emotional illiteracy and miseducation of boys. While their use of the Biblical allusion does not confirm the etymology of the idiom “Raising Cain”, the frequency by which “Raising Cain” is referencing the first brothers of Genesis may very well eclipse other possible etymologies.

  • The all knowing

    Raising cane means to do something that would, in essence, get you cained or whipped.

  • Bob

    If referring to sugar cane, then “razing cane” describes what is done to the crop each year. It’s stripped of its leaves while standing, then the entire field is cut off at the roots. Thus you’d literally raze (destroy) the cane.

    However, in researching this by coincidence this evening I discovered that it’s a very old phrase. It means to call up the Devil, i.e. to “raise [raise up, bring forth] hell”. A common term for creating a disturbance.

  • whoops… i used the word “dungarees”…. don’t laugh at great grandma ! well, i now know “sneakers” are again acceptable. L O L

  • Arne

    This is from The night they drove old Dixie down:

    Like my father before me, I will work the land,
    And like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand.
    He was just eighteen, proud and brave, But a Yankee laid him in his grave,
    And I swear by the mud below my feet,
    You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.

    Anyone care to elaborate or explain? thanks
    Cheers

  • typical rock songwriter technique,
    put in something that rhymes to make the bloody song,

  • Marcy

    There is nothing in that song that rhymes with Caine. I always thought it meant the family’s last name was Caine.

  • Briley

    In the song referenced, the opening line is “Virgil Cain is my name…” He’s referring to Cain as in the family name.

    As far as the “raising Cain” debate, I always assumed it was a Biblical reference. Adam and Eve raised Cain (their son), and in the end it resulted in disaster with the murder of his brother. When you “raise Cain”, it means you’re stirring up trouble. No expert, especially Biblically, just an English major in love with things such as this.

    In my opinion, it doesn’t matter how you interpret it when it is used in conversation. The issue is when it is written out, and you must choose between the spelling “Cain” and “cane”. Like all good papers though, just stick to your guns and use the same spelling consistently! Good luck.

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