Right as Rain

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.

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