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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | legalese? | “honcho,” “wheeler-dealer,” “big cheese,” “macher”)

“Rainmaker” seems to have developed a specific meaning, or maybe two closely related ones, during the 1960’s and ’70’s. (Evans and Novak used it in the Washington Post in January 1969, and I have not found an earlier instance.) Primarily, it was legal slang for a lawyer who brings in a lot of clients and/or revenue for the firm, but it might also refer to a government official who knows how to get results. William Safire used the term to refer to lobbyists — an unholy combination of the two. But whether used of lawyers or senators, it meant power and influence, the ability to get things done for those with the means to pay. Now it can refer to Hollywood executives and Wall Street brokers, but also movie stars and athletes. Someone who attracts money or prestige, or gets others to do her bidding. The specifically legal reference predominated at first, according to LexisNexis, but the other meaning has been available all along and by now has pulled even or even forged ahead.

“Rainmaker” used literally, or fancifully, is much older. The magician who makes rain fall in a dry season in Africa or the American Southwest (presumably their services are otiose in the Pacific Northwest or the British Isles) was known to anthropologists and everyone else as the rainmaker. So was the scientific practitioner, conjuring up precipitation by chemical, electrical, or explosive means. For many years, “rainmaker” in its literal sense led an uncomfortable double life, evoking both the miracle worker and the con man. The eponymous play and film told the story of an attractive mountebank (a little like Harold Hill in The Music Man) hired by a drought-stricken town that just happens to contain a feisty woman verging on old-maidhood, with predictable results. John Grisham’s equally eponymous legal thriller, made into a film in 1997, used the word more as we use it today. In sportswriting, “rainmaker” is used occasionally to denote a high-arching shot (as in tennis, basketball, or golf). “Rainmaker” is also popular as a brand name and trademark.

You know what I can’t figure out? How did “rainmaker” wind up meaning “one who brings in business”? As in the case of “bells and whistles” last week, we have a common yet non-intuitive expression whose original meanings bear no obvious relation to the way we use it today. I see the point that a rainmaker brings in money (“rainmaker” = “moneymaker”), and money makes the business grow and makes everything nice and green. Maybe I’m being fussy, but that’s not a very satisfying explanation. Bringing prosperity and showering the firm with cash? Then why not a “chieftain” (if we must have such anthropological terms) throwing a potlatch for his subjects? Why not a snake charmer, lulling the client with murmurs of competence and connections? Why not the witch doctor or shaman, brimming with mysterious power, driving away bad fortune and bringing forth good spirits? Any of these are at least as plausible and more readily available. The miracle worker/con-man dichotomy mentioned above may have played a role — arguably also characteristic of the snake charmer and witch doctor — but beyond that I can’t think of any reason “rainmaker” should have won out.

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