Where does the expression “to raise Cain” come from and What does it mean?

In the United States, one raises Cain when he causes a disturbance, or, perhaps, when one gets so angry that he loses his temper.

The saying is generally believed to refer to the first child of Adam and Eve, Cain, who killed his brother, Abel, through jealousy and whose name has always been synonymous with fratricide.

It is not surprising that the first literary use of the expression should have this reference, a witticism in the St. Louis Pennant of 1840: “Why have we every reason to believe that Adam and Eve were both rowdies? Because they both raised Cain.”

It seems more likely to me, however, that the expression was originally a play upon words. Cain was, it is true, a son of Adam and Eve; but for many centuries and to the present time in Scotland and Ireland, the Gaelic word “cain” or “kiln” or “cane” has meant the rent of land, payable in produce.

One who “raises cain” is actually raising the produce to pay for his land. Some Scottish or Irish settler in the United States may have used the term literally in all seriousness to a jocular neighbor.

There is no evidence supporting the hypothesis, however.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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