By Anatoly Liberman
Contrary to some people’s expectation, July has arrived, and it rains incessantly, that is, in the parts of the world not suffering from drought. I often feel guilty on account of my avoiding the burning questions of our time. Experienced word columnists tend to begin their notes so (my example is of course imaginary): “Last week the President declared: ‘These shenanigans won’t deceive anybody.’ What can we say about the word shenanigans? According to the OED…. Professor S. of Shine-Sheen College confirmed in a telephone interview that, to the best of his knowledge, no consensus exists as to where the word came from. However…” This is what I call socially sensitive, sustainable word journalism: no sooner said than done. Today is my turn. The Fourth of July is with us, it raineth on the just and the unjust, and I want to rise to the importance of the moment. What then is the origin of the word rain? This question will not go away, and, even if does, it will come another day.
Wherever the Germanic-speakers may have had their homeland, they appeared in the light of history with the same word for “rain.” It has been attested in all their old languages, including Gothic (the fourth century CE), approximately in the form regn. But other Indo-Europeans had other names for it (compare Latin pluvia and Russian dozhd’), so that we cannot decide whether the root reg’– or rek’– had any counterpart outside Germanic, and, if it did, what it meant. Old Icelandic raki “dampness,” a slew of Lithuanian words with the r-k root, and especially Latin rigare “moisten” (compare Engl. ir-rig-ate) have been cited in connection with rain. The problem has never been resolved. Some dictionaries say “etymology doubtful (uncertain, unknown),” while others give it as established, ignoring the difficulties they have chosen to bypass.
“Rain” need not have signified “water,” “moisture, vapor,” or “wet” (such is the range of meanings in the putative cognates of the Germanic noun). People distinguish between several kinds of water falling from the sky. Rain (the most abstract of the many synonyms) is, we are told, “condensed vapor of the atmosphere falling in drops” (true enough), while shower refers to “a brief and usually short fall of rain” (also true; only showers, not rains, can be scattered, and only they can bring May flowers). Rains, in the plural, unless it refers to a rainy season, sounds suspicious; compare Kipling’s: “In August was the Jackal born;/ The rains fell in September; ‘Now, ‘such a fearful storm’/ Says he/ ‘I can’t remember’”. By the way, the oldest sense of the Germanic word for “shower” seems to have had harsher connotations than those familiar to us. In Gothic, the phrase skura windis, literally “storm of wind,” has been recorded, and in all probability, Latin caurus and some other Indo-European words for “north” are related to s-kura. The violence associated with shower may corroborate my guess presented below.
A look at the many words for “rain” shows how varied the picture is. Russian liven’ “downpour” has the root of the verb for “flow.” Compounds (like downpour) are plentiful. For instance, in German we find Platzregen (platz- “to explode, burst,” Regen “rain,” and the usual gloss for the long word is “cloudburst,” which is correct), Staubregen, Sprühregen, and Niselregen (all three mean “drizzle”: Staub “dust,” sprühen “to spray”; niesen “to sneeze,” nieseln “to drizzle,” both are related to Engl. s-neeze). Engl. drizzle, which conveniently rhymes with fizzle and sizzle, has the root of the Old English verb dreosan “to fall” (dross may be akin to it), but drizzle is not any rain that “falls” to the ground: it must fall in very fine drops. Swedish has regndusk and Norwegian has duskregn (Swedes and Norwegians often do things differently). If dusk is related to Russian dozhd’, mentioned above, both are, from a historical point of view, tautological compounds “rain-rain” (such compounds were once the subject of a special post of mine).
We can see that people are most particular when it comes to characterizing “rain.” This is probably the reason we cannot be sure about the origin of the word that interests us. It so happens that I too have a hypothesis concerning the derivation of rain. No proof can be advanced in such cases, but it will be a pity to keep even the tiniest light under the bushel, so I am going to reveal it. The inspiration for my conjecture (a mere guess really rather than a hypothesis) was the German idiom es regnet in Bindfäden “it rains cats and dogs” (another post of mine was devoted to the enigmatic English phrase). Bindfäden is the plural of Bindfaden “string.” The image is clear: it rains so hard that the streams of water seem to stand in the air like ropes. Similarly, the Swedish idiom regnet står som spön i backen, said about a heavy downpour, means literally “the rain stands as (a) rod in the bank,” the picture being not too remote from that of German strings or ropes. So it occurred to me that perhaps the Old Germanic word for “rain” designated just such a downpour.
The Germanic languages, especially Dutch, German, and those of Scandinavia, are full of verbs like ragen ~ raga ~ rage “rise, tower” and “move furiously” (there are especially many of them in dialects, but Engl. rage, from Latin, via Old French, from rabia ~ rabies, has nothing to do with them). I assume that all of them are related. By the rule of vowel alternation (as in German geben ~ gab “give ~ gave”), rag– would naturally alternate with reg-. Is it possible that the ancient form reg-n- has no direct connection with any word in Latin, Sanskrit, Lithuanian, and the rest and signified a furious shower, when it seemed that water “stood” like a rod in the air?
“It was not like our soft English rain that drops gently on the earth; it was unmerciful and somehow terrible; you felt in it the malignancy of the primitive powers of nature. It did not pour, it flowed. It was like deluge from heaven, and it rattled on the roof of corrugated iron with a steady persistence that was maddening. It seemed to have a fury of its own. And sometimes you felt that you must scream if it did not stop, and then suddenly you felt powerless, as though your bones had suddenly become soft; and you were miserable and hopeless.”
–Somerset Maugham, “The Rain.”
Is this the rain the distant ancestors of the “Teutons” saw somewhere in the south, and is this the reason they called it reg-n-? We will never find out.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”