The Explanation Behind 12 Common Weather Phrases

You’ve heard them all before, but what do these common sayings and phrases actually have to do with the weather? On-Camera Meteorologist Mark Elliot examines 12 weather phrases you’ve heard your whole life and explains what how they originated.

“Under the weather”

Many weather terms have nautical origins. Next time you are feeling under the weather, you can summon your best pirate impression. As it turns out, when a sailor wasn’t feeling well, he/she was told to get into the quarters/beds, which were often located underneath the front deck of the boat. However, that deck was often the weather observing deck, so the sick sailor was literally under the weather. An alternative explanation is that anything above the boat was in the weather, so if you weren’t feeling well, you wanted out of the wind, rain, and waves, so being under the weather meant you were going below deck.

“Right as rain”

The origin story of “right as rain” is still under debate. One of the most prevailing ideas is that the word “right” in this case is actually more about a straight line or a right angle. Rain, without wind of course, falls straight down towards the ground.  So “right as rain” actually means moving straight on or to be “straight as an arrow.” Another explanation is that rain in literature is often used as a change towards good, or a regrowth due to the beneficial water from the rain. So if someone was sick but then got better, they were now right as rain… meaning changing health for the better!

“Take a rain check”

To get a rain check is an American phrase from the original American pastime… baseball! If something happened to a game that was out of the ticket purchaser’s control, such as weather making play impossible, it became tradition for that ticket to be good at another game. Thus the rain check policy was born. It later was extended to other areas such as a grocery store sale when the product was no longer left on the shelves, but its true origin goes back to the weather.

“Head in the clouds”

Before the days of flight, being in the clouds was considered basically impossible. If someone had their head in the clouds, they were not in reality or thought of seriously… a perpetual daydreamer if you will. Basically this phrase was used as the opposite of being grounded or down to earth. Those practical people never had their head in the clouds!

“Every cloud has a silver lining”

If you can see the silver lining after being under cloud cover all day, it either means the cloud isn’t as large, or there are no other clouds behind it further masking the sun. It is of course the sun shining in that brings that glowing edge to a cloud. So, this phrase was born to express optimism… that all times and all clouds eventually give way to sunshine. It appears to have first been used by author John Milton in 1634’s “Comus.”

“The calm before the storm”

This phrase definitely has its origins in meteorology, even though not all storms feature a calm period before their arrival. That said, there are several types that often do, including hurricanes. A hurricane is an area of low pressure, but the sinking air out in front of that low creates higher pressures, associated with clear skies, sun, warmth, and relatively dry conditions. Often while waiting for a hurricane to come in, you’ll see meteorologists from The Weather Channel needing sunscreen while standing in the proverbial calm before the storm. Some of our biggest severe thunderstorms also feature a calm before arriving. An area of warm air aloft, called a cap, prevents rising motion and thus prevents cloud formation. When this cap is in place you’ll have a quiet, and often still and warm day. Once there is enough heating however, this cap can “break,” allowing for explosive development and severe weather.

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight”

Indeed another sailing phrase that brings in the weather! Before we had great forecasts and the science of meteorology increased, phrases like this became your guide to weather out at sea. To understand this phrase, you need a couple of other pieces of info. First, in many of the areas where sailing takes place, storms generally move from west to east. With the sun setting in the west, if there were storms building to the west, it would block your sunset, and you wouldn’t get those beautiful red colors in the sky. On the other hand, you actually NEED clouds in the sky to get the types of sunset where the whole sky looks red. These high cirrus clouds become the canvas for the sunlight to project upon. If the sky is red with these high clouds, it thus means that the bigger clouds are exiting to the east, because again, if they were the high clouds ahead of storms, the sunset would be completely blocked. The second part of this phrase is, “Red Sky in Morning, Sailors Take Warning.” Move the sun to the east for sunrise and switch the logic around. If there are high clouds in the morning it likely means even more clouds and storms are headed from west to east bringing dangerous sailing conditions towards the location.

“Rainbow in the morning gives you fair warning”

This is tied to our sailing past as well, and is the same logic as “Red Sky in Morning, Sailors Take Warning.” With the sun rising in the east, the rain shower that the sun is going through to create a rainbow is to the west. Considering much of the weather moves from west to east, a morning rainbow often means that the rainy weather is headed towards you.

“When dew is on the grass, rain will never come to pass”

This phrase is based in meteorology science as well, but unfortunately it doesn’t ALWAYS work. The thought of this is that for dew to form overnight, you need the temperature to drop to the dew point (a measure of the amount of moisture in the air). If the temperature drops to the dew point, you wind up with a very high relative humidity, and moisture comes out of the air and forms dew. It’s easiest for this temperature drop to occur on clear calm nights, which are often, but not always followed by clear calm days. The exception of course is if storms move in during the day, which can obviously happen.

“Mares’ tails and mackerel scales make tall ships take in their sails”

The sailors are at it again! Mare’s tails are a type of cloud formation formed by high cirrus clouds blown by upper level winds. Mackerel scales are another cloud formation… usually associated with very high up cumulus clouds. Both of these can indicate a front approaching, so sailors would often bring down their sails so they wouldn’t be blown off course or damaged by the approaching storms’ wind.

“Dog days of summer”

While many give the credit of this phrase to the fact that hot, panting, lazy dogs can be found when it is extremely hot out since dogs can’t sweat and thus cool their bodies by panting, the true origin goes back to ancient times. The Greeks and Romans noticed that the hottest days of the year, often late July, occurred just as the dog star Sirius came into the height of the sky. This extremely bright and visible star, was thought to add heat, just like the sun does during the day. The combination of the sun and Sirius formed the dog days. Unfortunately for the ancient cultures, their hypothesis was wrong… the star doesn’t actually add any heat to Earth… and potentially even more upsetting, their origin story of this phrase has almost been completely replaced by the more current lazy dog version!

“It’s raining cats and dogs”

One of the best weather phrases there is… and one with many possible explanations. The most common, although with a few variations, is about a proliferation of stray animals. When homes featured thatch roofs, stray dogs and cats would often hide in them for shelter and for temperature regulation. But if it rained hard enough, these animals would either be washed out of the roof, or would jump out on purpose to look for better shelter. Along the same lines, in times when door locks weren’t as common, strays would push their way inside to get out of heavy rain. There is even a darker thought that strays would be washed away in the gulleys on the sides of old streets in a heavy rain, also contributing to the look of it actually raining these animals! Finally, there is some thought that within mythology, cats often had powers over storms, and dogs including the Norse god Odin had influence on storms and windy conditions, so people referenced the cats bringing the rain, and dogs bringing the wind!

Are there any other common weather phrases you know and can explain? Share it in the comments to help educate your fellow weather fans!

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  1. It is always interesting to learn the origins of such phrases. We still use them frequently today. Now we can pass on explanations to the grandkids.

  2. Interesting and informative; I didn’t know where these expressions came from. I esp. found the sailing past interesting, as well as what people relied on before we had all this technology.

    Written in plain English so to speak, you don’t have to be a meteorologist to understand the explanations! 🙂

  3. An oldie not on the list – ”Ring around the moon, rain or snow soon”

  4. A common phrase in the Midwest “That strong wind we’re having today, hopefully it’ll blow in a rain”

  5. some of these I’ve heard before and some are new to me. “Mares’ tales and mackerel scales” is an interesting one. Pretty cool stuff!

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