And there’d be no rainbows for the unicorns!
Dear Word Detective: Where did the phrase “right as rain” come from? I’m sure there are plenty of flood victims who might not think that rain is always “right.” — Andy Hughes.
Yes, well, there’s that. On the other hand, if we had no rain, there’d be no wheat, and without wheat there’d be no flour, and without flour there’d be no pizza. Also no cows, so no milk, thus no cheese for the pizza. And tomato plants don’t grow in the desert. Furthermore, even if it weren’t necessary for life on this so-called planet, I rather like rain, and I have never understood people who freak out and run for cover the minute it starts to sprinkle. It’s water, for pete’s sake. Your body is already ninety-five percent made of the stuff. Consequently, it’s always gonna be way too late for an umbrella, so please relax.
Rain has been around pretty much since the beginning, of course, and the word “rain” itself (which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “Condensed moisture of the atmosphere falling to the ground visibly in separate drops; the fall of such drops; rainwater”) is very old. Its source was the Indo-European root “regna,” and our English “rain” has close relatives in many other European languages. “Rain” is also a verb and can, of course, also be used figuratively to describe anything arriving in large quantities, whether good or bad (“It was raining bonuses on the company’s executives while it was raining layoffs on the factory floor”).
“Right as rain” is a popular idiom meaning “absolutely fine or perfect; in perfectly functioning order” (“We’ll pop a new battery in your robot and it’ll be right as rain”) or, applied to a person, “in fine health” (“Two months after the robot attacked him, Bob was right as rain again”). As an adverb, “right as rain” means “with no problems; smoothly” (“We’ll pull through right as rain,” 1908).
“Right as rain” first popped up in print in the late 19th century (“If only this infernal Fitzpatrick girl would have stayed with her cads in Dublin everything would have been as right as rain,” 1894), but other “right as” idioms had already been widespread for several hundred years in English. “Right as a book,” “right as nails,” “right as a trivet,” “right as a line” and “right as a gun” (as well as my favorite, the weirdly recursive “right as my leg”) were all popular at various times beginning in the 15th century. In most cases, the item referenced was something straight (a nail, a line) or especially solid (a trivet). None of the phrases were meant to be literal comparisons, however, and the only apparent logic behind “right as rain” is that rain usually falls in a straight line. But the key to the enduring popularity of “right as rain” is clearly its monosyllabic alliteration. (By the way, I just realized, while trying to type it, that the phrase “monosyllabic alliteration” is about as far from monosyllabic alliteration as you can get.)
And now for something truly strange. I was searching the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary for earlier synonyms of “right as rain,” and I came across the breathtakingly bizarre phrase “all (or everything) is gas and gaiters,” meaning “everything is fine” (as well as “all gas and gaiters,” used to mean “pompous”). “Gaiters” are, in case you were wondering, cloth or leather coverings for the lower leg. As helpfully explained by Michael Quinion at his World Wide Words website (worldwidewords.org), the phrase “all is gas and gaiters” began as the denouement of a demented monologue by a deranged old man in Charles Dickens’ 1839 novel Nicholas Nickleby. It was meant by Dickens as utter nonsense, of course, but “all is gas and gaiters” was quickly picked up and became a popular catch phrase meaning “everything is perfectly right” in 19th century Britain. Use of the phrase “gas and gaiters” to mean “pompous but empty words” apparently arose later, in the 20th century, originally referring to senior church officials in England, who really did wear gaiters under their vestments and were widely considered pompous and a bit vapid.
Four-letter word for a small, damp foul.
Dear Word Detective: Crossword puzzle editors seem to have their favorite words that get used over and over. “Anon,” “ewer,” and “Tso” (“General on a Chinese menu”) are a few. One other frequently used word for “confused” is “asea.” Searching on-line only gets me “at sea” or “on the sea.” Was there a time that wanting to go to sea meant you were confused, or worse? (I would think that the navies of the world would object to such usage. Was it started by the Army or Air Force?) — Smitty.
Oh boy, crossword puzzles. I said a few years ago that I don’t do crossword puzzles, which is true, because I don’t like crossword puzzles, which is not precisely true. I don’t enjoy doing the puzzle myself, but I’m happy as a clam to have someone ask me for words. I guess it’s because I don’t have a horse in the race (and can just say “beats me” when I feel like it). But there’s something about actually seeing all those blank spaces that fills me with anxiety and dread. And there’s nothing sadder than getting on a train, finding a half-done, tear-stained crossword puzzle on your seat, and knowing there’s some lost soul out there standing on a bridge, racking his tortured noggin for a seven-letter word meaning “Himalayan gem.” What a waste.
I have also come to feel a wariness, justified by experience, toward crossword puzzle clues and their makers. I don’t trust them. Take the clue you mention, “confused,” which is intended to elicit the answer “asea,” presumably accompanied by a chorus of onlookers exclaiming “Of course!” The first problem is that the word is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), properly spelled “a-sea.” Note the hyphen, which appears in the only two print citations listed in the OED (from 1858 and 1878). (Not a popular word, that “a-sea.” One might even call it perversely obscure, a tactic to which General Tso would never stoop.)
Perhaps a hyphen is impractical in a crossword, so we’ll let “asea” slide on that score. But a bigger problem is that nowhere in the definition of “a-sea,” in either the OED or the Merriam-Webster Third International Unabridged Dictionary, does “confused” or anything like it appear. “A-sea” is defined as meaning simply “on the sea” or “toward the sea” (“We stood looking a-sea,” 1878), and is simply “sea” plus the obsolete prefix “a,” meaning “towards” or “on” (also preserved in “afield,” “abed,” “ashore,” etc.). There is no history of “a-sea” or “asea” being used figuratively in any sense.
My guess is that the creator of that crossword puzzle was actually thinking of the expression “at sea” or “all at sea,” an idiom which has been in use since the mid-18th century and is defined by the OED as meaning “In a state of mind resembling the condition of a ship which is out of sight of land and has lost her bearings; in a state of uncertainty or perplexity, at a loss.” This is an extremely popular idiom (“She was so plainly at sea on this part of the case … that Clennam was much disposed to regard the appearance as a dream,” Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, 1857), and would make an excellent crossword answer.
But “at sea” (and certainly “all at sea”) didn’t fit, so the puzzle-maker decided that, since “at sea” and “asea” both meant “on the sea,” they must also both mean “disoriented, confused.” But they don’t, not judging by the actual history of “a-sea.” It’s not a big deal, but it seems like a fudge and it really isn’t cricket. “A-sea” is already obscure, no one stumbling across it would assume it has that figurative meaning, and if major dictionaries don’t include that definition, it really doesn’t belong in a puzzle.
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi
Stop the presses! After mulling over my savage pan of All Things Bright and Sweaty last month, I finally thought of something nice to say about summer.
This was not easy. As I write this, the Heat Index is 110 degrees and I’m not allowed to play outside. OK with me. As I’ve mentioned, due to my ms, above about 75 my legs stop working, my vision blurs, and I fall over sideways. So I don’t go outside much, but it’s no great loss. There’s nothing out there but biting flies and snakes and gray, soupy air. It’s like Jurassic Farm, especially at night. It also smells foul, partly from the paper mill ten miles southwest of us, partly from Toxco two miles down the road (I am not making that name up), and partly because the fields surrounding us have been repeatedly doused with herbicides and pesticides for the past month. Thanks, Farmer Bob.
It’s gotten to the point where I’m dreaming about the heat, like in that old Twilight Zone episode. Every so often it rains in small, exceedingly strange and violent thunderstorms. Yesterday we lost power for about four hours, but we bailed out after two and drove to Bob Evans. They were close to closing, so they put three sandwiches worth of chicken salad on mine, and the french fries were actually hot. High point of the week.
Incidentally, the columns in this issue were sent to subscribers back in January, so if you’re feeling faint from the heat you might try printing them out and holding them against the back of your neck. And don’t forget that the mere act of subscribing will make you feel better.
Speaking of dreams, we finally watched last year’s Inception on the DVR. Well, at least it wasn’t Avatar. I found it a bit frustrating, because the first half of the movie sets up some interesting ideas and subplots, which seem like they’re going to be developed in the second half. And they are, sort of. But first the whole thing turns into a standard Hollywood heist film (Assemble the team! Preferably by flying all over the world! Because nobody has cell phones!). And then it turns into Mission Impossible 10 with way too many pointless gunfights and car chases, and the interesting ideas, along with the main plot line, sort of melt into a half-hearted puddle. But at least it wasn’t Avatar. Avatar was genuine torture.
Before I forget again, please send me your questions. I need questions! Lots of questions! The more detailed the better, but just a bit about what you think about the term, where you heard it, etc., would help. As an inducement, if I pick your question as the basis for a column, you’ll automatically receive a free one-year subscription to TWD-by-Email. Or not. Your choice. Anyway, bring out your questions!
Thanks to the person who sent me a Google+ invite. They seem to be doing things quite a bit better than Facebook does, especially regarding privacy. The “circles” thing is a definite improvement over undifferentiated “friends.”
Oh, right, I was saying something nice about summer. Ready? No school buses.
Here’s the thing. We live on a typical rural Midwestern road, a two-lane blacktop (really 1-1/2 lanes) with no shoulder, and scary-deep drainage ditches on both sides awaiting the unwary. “Town” (gas station, post office, hardware store, tiny drugstore, dive bar and several not-good pizza shops) is about three miles down the road. So when you have to go there, you drive between immense fields of corn or soybeans (they alternate crops every year) until you reach the first problem, which is a sharp curve at the corner of one of the larger fields. If the crop is soybeans, no problemo; you can see what’s coming from the other direction. If it’s corn, you’re screwed; you’d think that cars coming into a tight blind curve would slow down and stick to their own side, but you’d be wrong. We’ve had several close calls at that curve with morons going way too fast in the wrong lane. The speed limit for most of this road is 45 mph, which is nuts, and many people try to take this curve at 35-45. A substantial percentage fail, as evidenced by the permanent deep wheel ruts at its apex leading to the newest telephone pole on the road. It’s always the newest pole on the road.
If you survive that curve, you drive another half-mile until you reach the woods, where things get really interesting. The road rises and then dips sharply, and at the bottom of the hill it takes a 90-degree twist to the left as it rises steeply into the woods. It’s exactly the sort of gut-wrenching dive and twist you find on roller coasters.
Bon Voyage, Bucko
If, perchance, you should miss the turn through inattention, you’ll quickly find yourself airborne above a 30-foot drop into the old Ohio & Erie Canal with only some sparse and scraggly trees to break your fall. Yes, people have done this. No, there is no guard rail, but there is a nice series of little yellow signs pointing to the left, all of which have been hit at least once.
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