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Q&A: Why do we “take a rain check”?

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're taking a rain check…

Q: Hi AWC, where does “rain check” come from?

A: As in, “can we take a rain check” – meaning to put something off for a later date?

Q: That’s the one. I’m assuming it had weather-related origins?

A: Correct. Grab your umbrella, and let’s take a look.

Q: Is a raincoat okay?

A: Nope, we’re going to need the umbrella.

Q: Oh, okay.

A: So, like many idioms, we need to go back to the sports field to find its origins. In this case, the sport was baseball and the year was 1884. Venue promoters decided that if fans turned up to a game that was then rained out, they would be issued a ticket called a “rain check” – which they could later hand over for free entry at the rescheduled game. 

Q: So it started out as a ticket with a very specific purpose?

A: That’s right. A “rain check” got you into a replacement baseball game.

Q: Did you know that baseball is mentioned right at the start of the Bible?

A: Hmmm, not sure that’s true. Baseball has only been around since the 1840s.

Q: Yes – it’s right there. “In the big inning…”

A: Hilarious. Anyway, over time, the “rain check” found other uses. A major one was if a store ran out of an advertised item, they might issue a “raincheck” so that the shopper could return and get the item later, at the cheaper price.

Q: I think I’ve seen plenty of promotions where it said “no rainchecks”…

A: Yes, if they want to limit the price to only what they have in stock.

Q: So is it one word or two?

A: It started out as two, but stores shortened it so that now either “rain check” or “raincheck” is acceptable – even “rain-check” with a hyphen. We’d recommend writing it as one single word (to differentiate it from actually checking the sky for rain), but whatever you choose, simply be consistent.

Q: Do I need this umbrella yet?

A: Not yet. Now eventually, these tangible tickets or “checks” found their way into a more figurative sense. The phrase “to take a raincheck” means to postpone a standing event by committing to some unspecified date in the future.

Q: Also known as, “I don’t actually want to hang out with you”…

A: Haha, well, yes, for some it is simply a polite form of refusal – of getting out of an engagement that you have no intention of ever attending. However, most will suggest “a raincheck” where they fully intend to honour it at a later date. 

Q: But they still probably don’t like you.

A: Maybe.

Q: And it doesn’t have to be raining?

A: Nope. You can ask someone for a raincheck in any weather. The important part is the postponement.

Q: So I’m pretty sure I’ve also seen it spelt “rain cheque” – is that the British version?

A: You may have seen it spelt that way, but there are two main reasons why it shouldn’t be. The first is that the idiom originated in America, so you’d typically go with the spelling of where it was created. 

Q: Fair enough.

A: But more importantly, only specific bank-issued pieces of paper with monetary value are spelt “cheque” in British English. This broader form of “check” is synonymous with a ticket – much like you might find at a “coat check” etc. Hence, we keep the “check” spelling. 

Q: Fair enough, just thought I’d cheque.

A: Haha, okay. The Oxford English Dictionary is firmly team “check”, so stick with that.

Q: So, to recap, a “rain check” or “raincheck” is either an actual ticket given out at a sporting event OR a ticket/voucher given by a store to honour a price OR a polite postponement to do something at a later date. That last one does not involve a ticket, because that would be weird.

A: Exactly. As you can see, taking a “raincheck” really is quite an… umbrella term.

Q: …

A: … 

Q: Seriously? That’s why you had me bring the umbrella?

A: Yeah. It sounded better in our head.

Q: Okay, well, that’s it for today. Shall we grab a bite to eat?

A: Ummmm sure. Oh wait, there’s a thing… Raincheck?

Q: …

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