I want to write the phrase "take a rain cheque" and am British.
Should I therefore use the British spelling of the word cheque, or respect the baseball origin of the phrase "rain check" and use the American spelling?
The entry in the OED is for rain check and it describes the spelling with cheque as rare. The derivation has nothing to do with cheques issued by banks. The check part is 'A token, usually a memorandum of receipt, a ticket, or piece of metal duly stamped or numbered, used for the purpose of identification, or as evidence of ownership or title'. If you write rain check, you have etymology and usage on your side.
The term rain check originated in the United States more than 140 years ago, seemingly in the context of outdoor sporting events. Here is the entry for the term in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):
rain check n (1884) 1 : a ticket stub good for a later performance when the scheduled one is rained out 2 : an assurance of a deferred extension of an offer; esp : a document assuring that a customer can take advantage of a sale later if the item or service offered is not available (as by being sold out)
In The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1971), rain-check appears in the supplementary volume, A New English Dictionary Supplement, as a "special combination" term within the much longer entry for the noun rain:
6. rain-check U.S., a ticket given to spectators of a baseball match providing for a refund of the entrance money or admission at a later date if the game is interrupted by rain ... [Earliest cited example:] 1889 Kansas City T. & Star : Mar., If the 'boys' do, they'll demand 'rain checks' on paying their admission.
More-recent British dictionaries drop the hyphen from "rain-check" but retain the -ck in preference to the -que. For example, The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, revised tenth edition (2002), has this entry:
rain check n. N. Amer. 1 a ticket given for later use when an outdoor event is interrupted or postponed by rain. 2 a coupon issued by a shop, guaranteeing that a sale item which is out of stock may be purchased at a later date at the same reduced price. – PHRASES take a rain check politely refuse an offer, with the implication that one may take it up at a later date.
rain check noun 1 take a rain check (on something) 2 [countable] American English a ticket for an outdoor event, such as a sports game, that you can use again if it rains and the action stops
And Collins Online English Dictionary has this:
rain check PHRASE If you say you will take a rain check on an offer or suggestion, you mean that you do not want to accept it now, but you might accept it at another time. [Example:] I was planning to ask you in for a brandy, but if you want to take a rain check, that's fine.
None of these sources offers rain cheque as a variant spelling of rain check or as a separate term with its own entry.
Earliest database matches for 'rain check'
The earliest real-world match for rain check that I've been able to find dates to 1879 and involves baseball games. From an untitled correspondents' column in the New York Clipper (July 12, 1879):
H. C. H., Holyoke .—"A visits B to play a National championship game of [base] ball. If B gives rain-checks, and the game is called at the end of two innings, is B obliged to pay any money to A?" ......It depends upon the agreement entered into.
The two next-earliest matches are from 1884—the year that Merriam-Webster cites as the earliest published instance of the term that it is aware of—and they too involve baseball games. From "Yesterday's Sports: Rain Prevents the Games Between the Local Clubs and Their Visitors," in the [Washington, D.C.] National Republican (July 25, 1884):
At Capitol park the Bostons had scored three runs in the first inning and two in the second, when the rain luckily intervened to save the home club from a probable defeat. After the shower had ceased the thousand persons present were given rain checks good for admission to to-day's game. This afternoon, at tho usual hour, the game scheduled for yesterday will be played, and a close contest may be looked for.
At Athletic park the Washingtons and Baltimores had each scored three runs when the game was stopped. Rain checks were issued, and the game goes over to be played when the Baltimores come here again. This afternoon, the two clubs meet again, and to-morrow they play in Baltimore.
And from "The National Game: The Meeting of the American Association Concluded—Some Interesting Changes made in the Rules," in the St. Paul [Minnesota] Daily Globe (December 12, 1884):
When clubs issue rain checks they shall not be required to pay the $65 guarantee to visiting club.
Earliest database matches for 'rain cheque'
Although the 1971 OED reports the term under the spelling rain-check, the spelling variant rain cheque has appeared in various publications—chiefly in the UK, Australia, and Canada—for more than 80 years.
The earliest match I could find for this spelling appears in "'Plane Crash: Six Killed: The End of a Foursome," in the [Rockhampton, Queensland] Morning Bulletin (July 7, 1931):
Louis Becker, millionaire business man, played a foursome with George Ritchie, well known throughout the States as a golfer, and two friends named Keller and Heran. When finished he offered to reward them with an aeroplane flight, which resulted in the death of six people.
"I'll take a rain cheque on my flight," laughed Heran, who had never been in an aeroplane, and refused to join them but Becker took the other two golfers, along with his fiancee, Josephine Lax, and two air pilots.
This new item has a dateline of "San Francisco [California], July 5 ," so in all likelihood an editor at the Morning Bulletin simply pulled the story off the newswire and Australianized the spelling of "rain check" that appeared in the original version of the piece.
From "Another Jimmie Dale,"in the [Adelaide, South Australia] Mail (August 17, 1935):
The "missing hour" deals with the Grey Seal's vengeance on a gang which murders a man who had done him a good turn in his early days in the underworld. Dale had promised to be this man's 'rain cheque,' or investment against the time when he was badly in need of help or money. He cannot "cash" the cheque through force of circumstances, but takes revenge.
Frank Packard was a Canadian novelist from Montreal, Quebec, and wrote the novel in question—Jimmie Dale and the Missing Hour—in 1935.
From "Rain Insurance," in the [Burnie, Tasmania] Advocate (July 6, 1938):
Most motorists have probably uttered the plaint "Every time I have my car washed, I know it is going to rain"?
An enterprising American service house proprietor determined to overcome the sales resistance of such an attitude, and adopted an unusual method of insuring his business. He issued "rain cheques" to his customers after a car-wash, entitling the motorist to another job for nothing should it rain within 48 hours of its being washed.
Again, the article seems to have been pulled from a U.S. wire service story and the term rain checks respelled as rain cheques—but it is noteworthy that the Burnie Advocate isn't the only Australian newspaper to have switched the spelling to rain cheques; the same spelling appears in iterations of the same article in the [Bowral, New South Wales] Southern Mail, the [Lismore, New South Wales] Northern Star, the Townsville [Queensland] Daily Bulletin, the Kalgoorlie [Western Australia] Miner, the [Perth, Western Australia] West Australian, the [Broken Hill, New South Wales] Barrier Miner, the [Ipswich, Queensland] Queensland Times, Nambour Queensland and North Coast Advertiser, the [Hurstbridge, Victoria] Advertiser, the Albany [Western Australia] Advertiser, and the [Hobart, Tasmania] Mercury, over the next month.
From H.J. Greenwell, "When the Dollar Fell: Hysterical Scenes in the U.S.A.: Banks Closed by New President,"in the Lockhart [New South Wales] and Oaklands Advertiser (July 25, 1939):
There was a custom in the American speakeasies to get what was called a "rain cheque." That meant that if somebody wanted to buy you a drink and, fro one reason or another, you didn't want it, you could get a "rain cheque" and get the drink some other time—on a "rainy day"! Now there were rainy days indeed; days when customers had no money either for meat or drink, so they took their "rain cheques" and cashed them in for either food or drink.
From "Rain Insurance Not Earned," in the [Launceston, Tasmania] Examiner (November 4, 1943):
When the morning dawned so gloomily and damp looking the show authorities probably congratulate themselves on their forethought in arranging rain insurance to the tune of £500 if specified amount of rain fell during the vital hours of the day. However, though there were a couple of smart showers during the morning, a few sprinkles in the afternoon, and at the very end what looked like the beginning of a thunderstorm that sent the last of the spectators scurrying for shelter, they failed to win their rain cheque. But with a record gate of nearly £1500 much of it no doubt brought by the sunshine in the after noon, the show authorities probably had the better of the deal.
This instance is noteworthy as the first homegrown Australian article (rather than U.S. import) to use the term rain cheque, although the meaning here is rather more literal—a cheque for a lump sum payment in case of rain—than U.S. usage tends to be.
And finally, from an untitled item in The Baker Street Journal (1947), a New York publication [combined snippets]:
Communications and greetings were read from The Diogenes Club, Alpha of California; The Scandalous Bohemians of Akron, Ohio; Needle Starrett of The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic) and from Nigel Bruce, who indicated he "would join in an absent toast and take a rain cheque on a future visit."
So at last we have an actual (albeit transplanted) Briton—and no less a figure than Dr. John H. Watson—alluding to a "rain cheque."
A British Newspaper Archive search doesn't turn up a relevant match for rain cheque until December 10, 1964, in the [London] Hammersmith & Shepherds Bush Gazette, where this item appears [combined thumbnail snippets]:
FIRST N NORMANS INSTANT CAR WESTERN GARAGE, WESTERN EAST ACTON ROUNDABOUT, W. 3 TEL were ROUNDABOUT, W. 3 TEL were FIRST to give you FIRST All British Fully Automatic Car Wash have enjoyed our service ! FIRST with the RAIN CHEQUE system. with the CAR WASH COUPON after 10 washes.
There are more than a few instances of rain cheque in book and newspaper databases, dating back to at least 1931. Nevertheless, the British dictionaries I consulted unanimously agree that the normal spelling of this "U.S." or "North American" term is rain check.
If you choose to use the spelling rain cheque, you won't be the first to have done so—and most of your readers will probably understand what the term means, notwithstanding its rather uncommon orthography. Still, there is something a bit twee about insisting on Queen's Englishing so thoroughly American a term as rain check despite widespread British dictionary acceptance of the U.S. spelling of check in the term. Conversely, I imagine that most U.S. writers would avoid spelling the fundamentally non-U.S. English word for "a national or royal treasury" as exchecker despite the fact that U.S. English prefers checker to chequer.
My understanding is that a "rain check" is a slip of paper given to attendees at a baseball game when the game is "rained out" after the fans have arrived and paid their entry fee but before some point in the game (6 innings) where the "win" would be given to the currently leading team. The slip entitles the holder to attend a later game by the "home team". See, for example, Bloomsburry.
The term "take a rain check" became a metaphor for saying you cannot accept an invitation now but you would like to at a later date. It was further metaphorized to be a semi-polite way to turn down an invitation.
Added: As to what spelling would be used in the UK, that is hard to guess. The term has an American origin, but substituting "cheque" for "check" would not significantly affect the meaning, nor would it surprise most US English speakers (if the person writing "cheque" was from the UK). It's largely a matter of personal preference.
The poster does not make clear whether he wishes to write the phrase as a consciously reference to a non-British English term, or as a foreign expression that is entering or has entered British English. I argue that in either case it should be spelled “check” primarily because British English customarily adopts foreign spellings, but also because the spelling “check” as a general term for a counterfoil has long been in use in Britain.
Two Possible interpretations of the Poster’s Question
I’m British too, but I am unsure in what context the poster wishes to use the expression — as a recognized non-British expression, or on the supposition that the expression has entered or is entering the British English canon. I shall consider both possibilities, although the wording of recent offers of alternatives to refunds for cancelled airline flights shows no evidence of the latter.
1. ‘Rain check’ as an exclusively US English expression
This is the position supported by dictionaries I have consulted. For example, the Chambers Dictionary (iPhone edition) has:
raincheck noun (US)…
and the Cambridge dictionary on line has:
rain check noun US
(Others have given the definition, so I will assume it is known.)
In this case I argue that if one follows what is customary in British writing, a British person ‘should’ spell the American expression exactly as it is spelled in the US — “rain check” (or raincheck).
What is the evidence for what I say is customary practice? Consider the word “labour” (British spelling) or “labor” (US and Australian spelling). Whereas US newspapers (e.g. the New York Times) refer to the “British Labour Party” as the “British Labor Party”, British newspapers (e.g. The Times) refer to the “Australian Labor Party” with the modern Australian spelling.
Likewise the spelling of “centre” (US “center”). The Financial Times (London) refers to the “World Trade Center”, although if they referred to its location in Manhattan in the same article they would use the spelling centre.
2. ‘Rain check’ as a British English expression
If one considers, however, that the US expression has entered or is entering British English, then the argument for the spelling “rain cheque” depends on the idea that the spelling “check” is not British in the sense of a voucher or receipt, and that in order to be assimilated into the language the spelling should be changed to “cheque”.
However, this argument is based on the false assumption that such a use of “check” is not British English. Although in this context the spelling “cheque” is older than that of “check”, OED has the following:
check (noun) 14
b. A token, usually a memorandum of receipt, a ticket, a piece of metal duly stamped or numbered, used for the purpose of identification, or as evidence of ownership or title: given, e.g. to the owner of luggage on the railway…
with an early example quoted:
1847 Illustr. Lond. News 4 Sept. 146/1 They will deny the receipt of a check, and exact the fare again.
As a footnote one might reiterate the catholic attitude of the British to the spelling of imported words by mentioning the adoption of the US spelling “program” in the context of computing, even though one would write about the “programme” of a meeting on the topic.
One final check
I find the idea of a spelling “rain cheque” quite bizarre. The modern use of this spelling in Britain is, in my experience, exclusively for financial cheques. It is ironic that someone should want to adopt a spelling found only in something that is rapidly disappearing. Is it for a wish to preserve a word from extinction, or is the poster is too young to know what a cheque actually is?