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shameless pleading





Rain check

Come again some other day.

Dear Word Detective:  A friend who is an ESL teacher and a stickler for correct spelling just informed me that the correct Canadian spelling of “raincheck” is “raincheque.”  I checked Webster’s and the Oxford dictionary, but I found only “rain check,” with the notation “US” next to it in the latter book.  I’ve never seen it spelled the other way before, and I wonder if it originated in the USA.  Can you shed any light on this? — Steve.

Oh, Canada.  So near, yet so … weird.  Just kidding.  I love Canada.  You have a very pretty flag and an awesome national anthem, and you speak something close to English, so we can come there if we run out of doughnuts, so to speak, down here.  We’ll sit quietly in the corner, I promise.

Of course, I was kidding when I said Canadians speak something close to English.  (That didn’t come out quite right, but you know what I mean.)   But I do happen to own a very thick book called “the Canadian Oxford Dictionary,” which claims to be “the foremost authority on current Canadian English,” so the folks at Oxford must know of at least a few differences between “American” and Canadian English.  One of those differences is how we in the US spell “check,” but that difference does not apply to all, or even most, uses of the word.

The word “check” itself is a very old and interesting word.  English imported it from the Old French “eschequier,” meaning “to threaten the king in a chess game.”  (Chess games end, of course, with “checkmate,” a situation in which the king is threatened and cannot escape.)  If you trace “check” further back, you eventually come to the Persian word “shah,” meaning “king.”

“Check” entered English in the early 14th century with this very specific chess-related meaning, but immediately began to acquire more general senses based on its use in chess, such as “attack” and “stop or impede” (as the king is impeded when “checked”).  We still use the “stop” sense when, for instance, we speak of one football team “checking the advance” of its opponents.

One of the other meanings that grew out of the “stop” sense was “check” meaning “control” or “verify,” which gave us such uses as “safety check,” the sense being that many things need to be halted for inspection before being allowed to proceed.  One of those things needing close inspection and verification was, of course, any kind of bank transaction, so in the 18th century “check” was also applied to the record of a bank transaction and later the instrument of that transfer itself, which today we call a “check.”  In Britain and Canada “check” in this particular use is spelled “cheque.”  But that is the only use in which that “cheque” spelling is used in either Canada or Britain.

A “rain check” (usually spelled as two words) was originally, when it first appeared in the US in the late 19th century, a ticket given to spectators at a sporting event called off due to weather, giving them the right to attend a future event without charge.  The term has also been used since the 1950s to mean a coupon issued by a merchant, good for an item on sale that is temporarily out of stock.  This is “check” in the sense of “token,” the same meaning found in “coat check.”  It is not “check” in the “written promise to pay” sense that is also spelled “cheque.”  The  Canadian Oxford Dictionary does not even recognize the spelling “rain cheque” (let alone “raincheque”).  It is true that if you Google “rain cheque,” you get about 3,000 hits.  But that fact does not begin to make it the only “correct” spelling.

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