“I was at the store the other day to purchase an item on sale. They told me that they would have to give me a rain check. That got me wondering; why do they call it a rain check? It has nothing to do with the weather.” Language, slang, and idiom questions are always intriguing to the Newton Falls Public Library staff. American English is so unique, that the library even has the book American English as a Foreign Language by Sandra Stevens
The only rain in the index of Common Phrases and Where They Come From by Myron Korach in collaboration with John B. Mordock was “raining cats and dogs [p.2-3].” In Teutonic myths, Odin’s dog signifying the wind chases a cat, the rain. When it rained heavily, Odin was believed to be dropping cats and dogs. Readers, who enjoy very short articles, will have fun reading this book of interesting descriptions of common phrases.
A Dictionary of American Idioms by Adam Makkai, M.T. Boatner, and J.E. Gates and McGraw-Hill's Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs by Richard A. Speares define a rain check including the obvious, a free ticket to another outdoor activity in place of one canceled by rain. We still don’t know how that has gotten to apply to merchandise at a store. Cassell's Dictionary of Slang by Jonathon Green had the meanings of many rain words, but not rain checks.
We searched online for the origin of rain check. The site TakeOurWord.com says the term was first used as early as 1884, when the May 26th St. Louis [Missouri] Dispatch story states "The heavy rain yesterday threw a damper over local operations. At each of the parks the audience had to be content with three innings and rain checks.” This site also notes that the phrase became “used metaphorically, and by the 1970s it had spread outside the U.S. and into other English-speaking countries.”