Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Drizzle, Sprinkle, Mist: The Etymology of a Rainy Day

Sometimes it's hard to focus on anything but the dreary weather when it has been dark and rainy all day, so today we're going to try to make the best of it by exploring the etymology of various terms related to rain, including "mist", "pour", and my personal favorite, "drizzle".

Obviously, we should start our linguistic exploration with rain, a term likely to be of Germanic origin that first appeared in Old English as regn. However, it could actually date as far back as the Proto-Indo-European *reg, which means "wet" and is thought to be the source of the Latin verb rigare, which means "to wet".

A gloomy, misty day in Wayanad, India.
One of the strangest weather-related phrases in common usage is raining cats and dogs, which refers to heavy rainfall. Nobody knows for sure where the phrase came from, but we do know that it has been used since the 1730s!

If you prefer not to imagine furry pets falling from the sky, you might use terms like pouring or teeming to refer to heavy rainstorms. The verb pour is of unknown origins, though it might have come from Old French or Latin. It has been used as an adjective to refer to heavy rain since around 1600. Teeming, on the other hand, comes from the Old English term teman, which means "to abound, swarm, be prolific".

However, my favorite terms are fun-sounding words like drizzle, sprinkle, and mist, which all refer to light rain. Drizzle is thought to come from the Old English word dreosan, meaning "to fall", while mist comes from an identical Old English term. However, the original definition of "mist" was "dimness of the eyes", which could refer to tears obscuring your vision or things figuratively obscuring your mental clarity. Given the distinctive sound of the word sprinkle, you probably won't be surprised to learn that it came to English via the Middle Low German term sprenkle, meaning "spot, speck". It has been used to refer to light rain since the 1770s.

Finally, there are the more violent terms related to rain, such as storm, flood, and deluge. The first two terms both entered our lexicon from Old English, namely the terms storm and flōd. Deluge, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word diluvium, a synonym for "flood", which became deluge in Old French before being incorporated into the English language.

If we left our your favorite rain-related term, you might find it in this BBC piece from 2012 that discusses some of the many British words for rain. We highly recommend watching the video in which a weatherman uses several entertaining words for rain, including mizzling!