Q: I just came across an old joke (but new to me): “Adam and Eve were the world’s first troublemakers. They raised Cain.” Which makes me wonder about the origin of the expression “raise Cain.”
A: The verb “raise” in this expression originally meant to conjure up something like a spirit or demon, a usage that’s been around since the Middle Ages.
In the 19th century, this conjuring sense of “raise” inspired the use of the verb in various figurative phrases meaning to cause trouble.
One of them, to “raise Cain,” an American expression first recorded in the 1830s, would literally mean to summon the spirit of the biblical killer of Abel.
The literal use of “raise” in its conjuring sense first appeared in writing in the late 14th century.
In this sense, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it means “to cause (a spirit, demon, ghost, etc.) to appear, esp. by means of incantations; to conjure up.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from “The Yeoman’s Tale,” part of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1386):
“I haue yow told ynowe / To reyse a feend al looke he neuere so rowe” (“I have told you enough to raise a fiend, look he never so fierce”).
Spirits “raised” in 15th-century writings included “deuils” (devils), “the devull,” and a “nygramansour” (necromancer or sorcerer). And in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, they included ghosts, shades (apparitions), assorted dead notables, and “Grisly Spectres” (Milton, Paradise Regain’d, 1671).
In the 19th century, as we said, this sense of “raise” became figurative, which brings us around to Cain. To “raise the devil” or “raise Cain” came to mean, in the words of the OED, “to create a disturbance; to cause trouble, uproar, or confusion.”
The dictionary’s earliest example of “raise Cain” is coincidentally a version of that old joke about Adam and Eve:
“Why have we every reason to believe that Adam and Eve were both rowdies? Because … they both raised Cain.” (From a St. Louis newspaper, the Daily Pennant, May 2, 1840.)
However, we found a variation on the joke in a newspaper published two years earlier: “Why was Eve the first Sugar Planter? D’ye give it up? Because she raised Cain.” (From the Sangamo Journal/Illinois State Journal, April 7, 1838.)
If the phrase was familiar enough to be used in jokes and puns, “raise Cain” had obviously been around in common usage before those examples were published.
We’ll cite a handful of later 19th-century examples from the OED:
“They will feel that they have been raising Cain and breaking things” (from an 1841 collection of comic pieces, Short Patent Sermons, by “Dow, Junior,” the pen name of Elbridge Gerry Paige).
“Topsy would hold a perfect carnival of confusion … in short, as Miss Ophelia phrased it, ‘raising Cain’ generally” (from Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852).
“I expect Susy’s boys’ll be raising Cain round the house” (from Stowe’s novel Oldtown Folks, 1869).
“If I get the horrors, I’m a man that has lived rough, and I’ll raise Cain” (from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, 1883).
As for “raise the devil,” the OED’s earliest confirmed example is from 1841, but we found this slightly earlier usage in a Virginia newspaper:
“Wm. Colson came up, and says, ‘Don’t talk so loud, for there are a great many Albany people on board, and if they find out that I’m engaged in this business, they will raise the devil with me’ ” (from court testimony in a fraud case, published in the Richmond Enquirer, Nov. 3, 1840).
Other satanic specters were apt to be “raised” in the troublemaking sense. Some related expressions, and the earliest dates we’ve found, include “raise Ned” (1845, a euphemistic reference to the devil), “raise mischief” (1840, another euphemism for the devil), and “raise Hell” (1803).
On that last expression, the OED has this fascinating aside: “The slogan ‘Kansas should raise less corn and more hell’ is attributed to Mrs. Mary Ellen Lease (1853–1933) but proof is lacking.”
We’ll end with a musical rendition of “raise Cain.” It’s from Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of the 1932 song “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Bernard Dougall. Here are a couple of stanzas:
I’ll be hard to handle
I’m telling you plain
Just be a dear
And scram out of here
I’m gonna raise Cain.
I’ll be hard to handle
I’m no ball and chain
I’ll find some means
To call the Marines
I’m gonna raise Cain.