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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.


I’ll drink to that, whatever it is.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word “spa”? Today’s Los Angeles Times claims that Wikipedia says this is a “backronym” and that the word actually comes from the Belgian town of Spa, a famous bath location in Roman times, whose name may have come from the Latin word “spagere” meaning “to scatter, sprinkle or moisten.” Yet another site claims that the modern word “spa” found its way into the English language through the old Walloon word “espa,” which referred to a fountain and that from “espa,” the English derived “spaw.” Can you possibly “spawn” a coherent theory from all this? — Jackie.

Wow. There’s a lot going on in that question. Among other things, it sounds like the LA Times is now using Wikipedia as a source, which is worrisome news for those of us who enjoy finding actual facts in our newspapers. On the other hand, given the spavined state of print journalism these days, the Times newsroom may now consist of little more than three lonely schmucks and an internet terminal.

I’ve never been entirely clear on exactly what a “spa” is, and it turns out to be a word with many meanings already and probably new ones coined weekly. As a child, I associated “spa” with ritzy resorts in Europe, the sort of place dissolute Hollywood stars would go to relax and flop around in mud baths. At some point, I gathered that such places usually involved a spring or well offering mineral water claimed to have medicinal benefits. In the 1970s, however, the then-new “hot tub” was often advertised as a “home spa,” which struck me as equivalent to naming a basset hound “Secretariat.” And today, the category seems to have collapsed completely, with strip malls in the US offering storefront “spas” that seem little more than glitzed-up beauty parlors.

Wikipedia is famously undiscriminating and credulous when it comes to word origins, and their entry on “spa” is no exception. Just for starters, the Latin word for “to sprinkle” is “spargere” (which gave us the English “sparse”), not “spagere.” But, oddly enough, the very first line of their entry, before they start entertaining silly theories, is correct. The word “spa” is derived from the town of Spa in Belgium, celebrated for its medicinal spring waters since the Middle Ages.

Pilgrimages to Spa to drink the waters were so popular in Europe that by the early 17th century “spa” was being applied to any place where such a medicinal spring was located and marketed to tourists. At some point, it was decided that soaking in such waters was also beneficial, so “spa” came to mean anyplace that featured heated baths, as well as, eventually, backyard hot tubs. By the 1960s, “spa” had expanded, especially in the US, to include health clubs featuring steam rooms and exercise equipment. In certain parts of New England, in fact, “spa” is used as another name for “soda fountain.”


Shakes on a plain.

Dear Word Detective: Immediately after the mid-April, mid-continent earthquake, I heard a news commentator use the word “temblor.” I presumed that he had misspoken either “trembler” or “tremor,” but afterwards I saw the word in print in an article regarding the same event. My American Heritage Dictionary (published in 1976, edited by your father, as I believe) lists the word and says that it is from Spanish “temblar.” How long has this been in use in English, and (nothing against Spanish) why do we need this word, besides the Latin “tremor” and Old English “quake”? I presume that in California news people get tired of saying the same word over and over, so come up with different terms; but here in mid-America, where tornadoes are nearly as frequent, “tornado,” “funnel,” and the occasional “twister” seem to fill the need just fine. — Charles Anderson.

Ah yes, the Midwest earthquake of April 18. It was centered in Illinois and supposedly felt in our area of Ohio, but I slept through it and it didn’t seem to have broken anything in the house. Then again, when you live with cats like ours, coming downstairs in the morning to find broken crockery and books all over the floor is hardly uncommon, so I might not have known if it had.

By the way, your American Heritage Dictionary is the second edition; my father, William Morris, was Editor-in-Chief of the first edition, published in 1969. He was not fond of the second edition, which he felt had compromised his work, but though highly of the third edition.

Your email uses the spelling “temblor,” as does the current fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, but the Oxford English Dictionary also spells it “tremblor,” so there’s yet another word for Action News 6 at 5 to deploy. It’s interesting, by the way, that here in the Midwest we usually worry about atmospheric eruptions (tornadoes, etc.), while in California it’s largely geologic malfunctions (earthquakes, mudslides, etc.) that cause trouble. If they’re now sending us their earthquakes, I definitely think we should at least share our cicadas and June bugs. I hate June bugs.

Onward. Both “temblor” and “tremblor” do indeed come from the American Spanish “temblar” (or “temblor”), derived from the Latin “tremere,” meaning “to tremble or shake.” The same family tree also gave us the English words “tremble,” “tremor” and “tremendous” (originally describing something so awful as to inspire fearful trembling). The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “temblor” is from 1876 (“The temblor has swallowed him,” Bret Harte, “Gabriel Conroy”), and for “tremblor,” 1913. As for why we need either word, I suppose we don’t, really.  But given the Spanish cultural heritage in California, it’s natural that the word would have developed and be widely known.