rain . . . rain . . .

Blog post
Published: 22.03.2011

 When it falls, as it has done incessantly this summer in parts of Australia, rain has a seemingly inexhaustible range of attributes. We have experienced them all. Within the effective limits of our visual and aural senses, some can be represented with film or video. They can be photographed, painted, drawn, which might seem more limited but can be more evocative. But how to describe them? How many words have we for rain?

For a start, there’s pluvial: a period marked by increased rainfall, from the Latin pluvialis, from pluvia : rain. Hence: this plurry pluvial summer.

The overall phenomenon can be called rain, rainfall, precipitation, wet weather; then there are more specific words like raindrops which splish, splosh, splash, or poetically plash; and there’s the miserly, but still wetting, drizzle, mist, mizzle; increasing to shower, rainstorm, storm (which also describes a windy, or dusty, or snowy occurrence), with a crescendo to cloudburst, torrent, downpour, deluge, flood (which is also an aftermath, as we have seen), avalanche (does that refer to rain?), flurry (which more usually described the behavior of snow for which legend has it the Yupik and Inuit languages have a plethora of words); and hail, which is frozen water.

Curious. In my list which I have supplemented from various thesauri, this is the first time the word water has appeared. The dictionary describes rain as moisture condensed from the atmosphere that falls visibly in separate drops. No mention of water. Of course water has its own descriptor: a colorless, transparent, odorless, tasteless liquid that forms the seas, lakes, rivers, and rain.

We have words for the behavior of rain: it rains lightly, moderately, heavily, in teeny, small, medium, or enormous thunderous drops; it pitters, patters, splitters, splatters; it pours, pours down, comes down, pelts down, teems down, beats down, buckets down. It rains cats and dogs. It is said to fall, in drips or drops (drops sound larger with their more open vowel) though sometimes, when fine, it eddies and whirls, wraithlike. Collective drops from trees can drench: just when you thought you were sheltered by the canopy a miniature Niagara finds its way down the back of your neck. Likewise from the brim of a hat.

Rain makes patterns, draws lines, paints pictures. First it stipples or spots (more random than polka dots) dry pavements, shading, merging and increasingly becoming subsumed in the broader sweep of wetness. And it’s diagrammatic, pockmarks and the concentric rings on water around rain drops accurately depict the shock-wave from their contact with it. Patterns on the surface of water — either during or in the aftermath of rain — are myriad and also graphically render the atmosphere at any given moment: calm, breezy, blustery, squally, with the concomitant glassy smoothness, ripples, waves. Even quite small puddles do this. They also reflect their upside-down backdrops, as do the raindrops themselves — small orbs containing miniature worlds. And glass plays fascinating tricks when wet: the car windscreen turns the intersection into an impressionist painting, windows blurr and fog; spectacles make intriguing but impractical viewing.

When rain falls on hot, dry pavement it sizzles and steams with the inimitable urban summer smell of tar relinquishing its heat, infused with the heady fragrance of frangipani flowers. The shock of rain-drops on dry earth send the dust up in little cloudy puffs. Rain-drops filled with dust are another matter, staining everything they land on the colour of rust.

Rain makes everything brighter. Greener. (too green) Ostentatiously, outrageously, painfully green.
It’s all bling! It sparkles! Shines! Flashes! It coruscates in a fakery of diamonds.

There are words for the way we feel it on our skin, or dampening or soaked right through our clothes, as I did yesterday through a “showerproof” jacket, every stitch dripping and toes making disturbing squelching sounds inside my shoes. This morning, when I went out for the newspaper, the mist was so fine it felt like a finely atomized spray blowing against my face; but fine, driving rain stings the cheeks. In the heat it cools us. In the cold it chills. In the tropics the skin feels each warm mega-drop as a gift and each tropical dowsing as though being pissed on by the entire company of gods.

We stamp in puddles, or jump over them. We slosh through the water-logged lawn. We wade through flood-waters, waist-deep. We tip-toe or stride across wet grass, leaving pale patches or tramped tracks of bent blades behind us. Feet stay drier walking in these ready-made tracks. (dry feet? dream on!)

The sounds of rain are diverse, ranging from the white silence of thick mist to the thunderous drum of torrential rain. The words mostly onomatopoeic. It susurrates through the leaves of trees. It splats and plips and plops in puddles. It sighs with the wind, taps on the window; collectives of drops chortle in drains and gurgle in downpipes, gaggle as they run along gutters. It shushes against walls, patters and clatters and hammers on metal roofs. It tap-dances on car roofs and umbrellas.
Rain weeps.

The good thing about rain is that it keeps one’s nose the the grind-stone, in the studio.
But here is a challenge:  Can stone speak the language of rain?


(Matilda, who insists on a mention, likes to bask in the sun.  She hopes this pluvial plurry summer will segue into a glorious autumn.)