Q From Julane Marx, California: I have been deputized by a small group of your readers and admirers to ask you a question. What is the meaning and origin of the phrase, right as rain? Is it an aesthetically pleasing but essentially meaningless alliteration, or is rain really correct in some way?
A An interesting question. Thank you for mentioning admirers. I’m more doubtful about the deputising: presumably the next stage would have been to get up a posse.
Perhaps surprisingly, there have been expressions starting right as ... since medieval times, always in the sense of something being satisfactory, safe, secure or comfortable. An early example, quoted as a proverb as long ago as 1546, is right as a line. In that, right might have had a literal sense of straightness, something desirable in a line, but it also clearly has a figurative sense of being correct or acceptable. There’s an even older example, from the Romance of the Rose of 1400: “right as an adamant”, where an adamant was a lodestone or magnet.
Lots of others have followed in the centuries since. There’s right as a gun, which appeared in one of John Fletcher’s plays, Prophetess, in 1622. Right as my leg is also from the seventeenth century — it’s in Sir Thomas Urquhart’s translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel, by Rabelais, published in 1664: “Some were young, quaint, clever, neat, pretty, juicy, tight, brisk, buxom, proper, kind-hearted, and as right as my leg, to any man’s thinking”. There’s right as a trivet from the nineteenth century, a trivet being a stand for a pot or kettle placed over an open fire; this may be found in Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers of 1837: “ ‘I hope you are well, sir.’ ‘Right as a trivet, sir,’ replied Bob Sawyer.” About the same time, or a little later, people were saying that things were as right as ninepence, as right as a book, as right as nails, or as right as the bank.
Right as rain is a latecomer to this illustrious collection of curious similes. It may have first appeared at the very end of the nineteenth century, but the first example I can find is from Max Beerbohm’s book Yet Again of 1909: “He looked, as himself would undoubtedly have said, ‘fit as a fiddle,’ or ‘right as rain.’ His cheeks were rosy, his eyes sparkling”. Since then it has almost completely taken over from the others.
It makes no more sense than the variants it has usurped and is clearly just a play on words (though perhaps there’s a lurking idea that rain often comes straight down, in a right line, to use the old sense). But the alliteration was undoubtedly why it was created and has helped its survival. As right as ninepence has had a good run, too, but that has vanished even in Britain since we decimalised the coinage and since ninepence stopped being worth very much.