People say thunder rolls but why is it that and who came up with the phrase. I came to the thought as i was sitting through a thunderstorm a while back and wanted to know the truth behind it.
The OED attests to roll in the sense of reverberating thunder from 1602,
Such a dreadfull roaring, as if it had beene a long rowle of thunder.
in Anthony Munday's translation of The Third Part of the History of Palmerin of England, and even earlier as a verb meaning to reverberate or re-echo, attested from around 1522 in Gavin Douglas's translation of Virgil's Æneid:
Endlang the costis the vocis and the sowndis Rollys inclusyt, quhill the mekyll hyllys Bemys agane.
The etymological note suggests it comes via Norman French rouler, meaning to turn over repeatedly, but with a long chain of derived meanings as to move something by turning it over repeatedly, to fashion into a ball or cylinder, and to move on wheels, and finally to make a prlonged sound, perhaps suggestive of turning wheels or rolling balls.
Writers—and especially poets—have linked the noun thunder with the verb roll for a long time. A Google Books search finds multiple poems written before 1725 that make this connection.
One early instance appears in Charles Montague, Lord Halifax's "On the Death of King Charles II" (1685), included in A Collection of Poems (1702):
To fright the Bad thus awful Thunder rolls;/ While the bright Bow secures the Faithful Souls,/ Such is thy Glory, Charles, thy lasting name,/ Brighter than our proud Neighbour's guilty Fame:
Another is from Thomas Parnell, An Essay on the Different Stiles of Poetry (1713):
Mount higher still, still keep thy faithful Seat,/ Mind the firm Reins, and curb thy Courser's Heat;/ Nor let him touch the Realms that next appear,/ Whose hanging Turrets seem a Fall to fear,/ And strangely stand along the Tracts of Air/ Where Thunder rolls, and bearded Comets glare.
Parnell uses a similar wording in "The Hermit" (by 1718) in Poems on Several Occasions (1722):
As near the Miser's heavy doors they drew,/ Fierce rising Gusts with sudden Fury blew;/ The nimble Light'ning mix'd with Show'rs began,/ And o'er their Heads loud-rolling Thunder ran.
Alexander Pope's translation/reworking of The Iliad of Homer, volume 2 (1720) uses the phrase "thunder rolls" twice:
For what remains; let fun'ral flames be fed/ With heroes corps: I war not with the dead:/ Go search your slaughter'd chiefs on yonder plain,/ And gratify the Manes of the slain./ Be witness, Jove, whose thunder rolls on high!/ He said and rear'd his sceptre to the sky.
Then Jove from Ida's top his horrors spreads;/ The clouds burst dreadul o'er the Grecian heads;/ Thick light'nings flash: the mutt'ring thunder rolls;/ Their strength he withers, and unmans their souls.
And from John Dart, "Westmonasterium. Or The History and Antiquities of the Abbey" (1723), reproduced in Charles Spurgeon, The Poetry of Westminster Abbey (2008):
Then shook the Earth, impatient of her * Load,/ And Storms on high bespake an angry God:/ His Thunder roll'd, his ruddy Light'ning drove,/ Threw down the impious Pile, and scorch'd the Grove.