Rub the Wrong Way

by Joanne Mason on April 1, 2013

GuntherOver Easter dessert yesterday, my brother, sister-in-law and I started talking about idioms.  Their cat, Gunther (in the photo), sat contentedly on the arm of the chair while Ellen patted him.

Suddenly, she reversed her hand’s direction, so that Gunther’s fur started to stand up on end.  “Hey, Gunther,” she joked.  “I hope I’m not rubbing you the wrong way!”

In other words, she hoped she wasn’t annoying him.  When people (or things) rub you the wrong way, they irritate you.

Example 1

Marion seems to be a capable manager, but her gruff personality really rubs me the wrong way. 

Example 2

The sportscaster’s comments rubbed me the wrong way. The losing team did make mistakes, but they had a good season overall.  He could have been more gracious about it. 

I found a couple of possible origins for rub the wrong way, but Ellen’s joke seems to be the most common.  The OED lists the phrase “with reference to stroking a cat against the lie of its fur” and notes that Thomas Hood, a nineteenth-century English poet and humorist, used it as early as 1834 in Tylney Hall.  And Richard Spears suggests that rub someone the wrong way stems from the original phrase rub someone’s fur the wrong way.

But Robert Hendrickson offers us another possibility.  Some believe that rub the wrong way comes from the practice of “wet-rubbing” unfinished floors during the Elizabethan era:

Oak floors that servants mopped against the grain became streaked, such carelessness giving rise to these words for the inept handling of people as well as floors.

Hendrickson also points out that there’s not much evidence to support this origin. He adds that the phrase was first recorded in 1862 and that its true origin is unknown.

What do you think about the origin?  Has someone or something every rubbed you the wrong way?  What did you do about it?

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