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If you take a 'rain check,' you'll get a bonus chess reference

When was the last time you asked for a rain check? 

Maybe a store gave you a rain check for a product you wanted that was out of stock. Or maybe you invited a friend out to lunch, but they were busy and asked for a rain check.

If you've ever asked for a rain check, you're actually using a phrase that we can trace back to baseball and, surprisingly, chess.

The earliest citation of "rain check" in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1884: "The Toledo Baseball Club will give rain checks this season." By the turn of the 20th century, "rain check" comes to refer to situations other than rained-out baseball games or other sporting events. 

Not long after that, we start to see "rain check" used in retail situations. In 1955, we get this quote from the Mansfield News Journal in Ohio: "Should any of these specials be out of stock, we furnish every customer desiring one with a rain check authorizing the purchase of this special at the advertised price."

The "check" in "rain check" goes back to chess. In chess, "check" is the act of threatening the other player's king. You could say that a player's king is "in check" when its position is threatened. Later on, "check" also comes to refer to a sudden stop in the course of something, because it's obstructed or there's opposition.

From there, "check" becomes a restraint upon an action by a supervising power -- e.g. keeping someone in check. It also comes to mean something that serves as a stop or a restraint, as in "checks and balances."

By the early 18th century, a "check" is a control to assure accuracy or security from fraud. By the 19th century, it can also be a receipt or a ticket that is used to show ownership -- that's where we get "coat check" and "hat check." This kind of check is also related to the check or bill you get at a restaurant as well as the check for money drawn from a bank account.

Are there other perplexing phrases that you'd like us to explore? Let us know below. 


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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