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.