Friday’s Phrase – Raining Cats and Dogs

Welcome to the weekly series “Friday’s Phrase”. A whimsical and informative look at the idioms, phrases, proverbs and colloquialisms we commonly use, what they mean, and where they came from.

 This week’s phrase:          “raining cats and dogs”

This is a very common phrase, and a great number of variations span across many languages. It is also one that has held onto more than one long-standing mythical etymology that swirls through the internet today.

Current accepted meaning:

Informal

  1. Raining very heavily, a deluge.
  2. Unusual or prolonged precipitation.

“We were going to have a barbecue this weekend, but it has been raining cats and dogs since Thursday.

Historical Recorded Use:

The first recorded use of a phrase similar to ‘raining cats and dogs’ was in the 1651 collection of poems, ‘Olor Iscanus’. British poet, Henry Vaughan, referred to a roof that was secure against:

“dogs and cats rained in shower.”

One year later, Richard Brome, an English playwright, wrote in his comedy, City Witt:

“It shall rain dogs and polecats.” (Polecats are related to the weasel and were common in Great Britain through the end of the nineteenth century.)

Etymology:

Together, these uses may have given rise to the ‘explanation’, widely circulated by an email of 1999 titled ‘Life in the 1500s’, which claimed that in 16th-century Europe, when peasant homes were commonly thatched, animals could crawl into the thatch to find shelter from the elements and would fall out during heavy rain. However, there seems to be no evidence in support of either assertion.

There are theories suggesting ‘Cats and dogs’ may be a corruption of the Greek word ‘Katadoupoi’, referring to the waterfalls on the Nile. Or a variation of the Greek phrase, ‘kata doksa’, meaning ‘contrary to expectation’, which is often applied to heavy rain. But again, there is no evidence to support either theory that it was borrowed by English speakers.

The more macabre, but likely, origin is that drainage systems on buildings in 17th-century Europe were poor and may have disgorged their contents during heavy showers, including the corpses of any animals that had accumulated in them. This theory is documented in Jonathan Swift‘s 1710 poem, “Description of a City Shower”, in which he describes:

“Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,

Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.”

Conclusion:

Here we may have witnessed a combination of first uses, along with a romanticized old word origin story or two, lead to a plethora of erroneous, if not laughable, etymologies trumpeted across the digital informationverse (ref: the internet).

Although the true origin may be dark in nature, it is also plausible, historically accurate, and definitively used in print. These are often the hallmarks of where the true origins of very old phrases come from.

Bonus Phrases: (provided at no extra charge)

Other languages have equally bizarre expressions for heavy rain:

Chinese: “倾盆大雨” (“it’s pouring out of basins”)

Finnish: Sataa kuin saavista kaatamalla (“It’s raining like poured from a bucket”)

Hungarian: mintha dézsából öntenék (“like poured from a vat”)

French: il pleut comme vache qui pisse (“it is raining like a peeing cow”)

Malayalam: പേമാരി pemari (“mad rain”)

Romanian: plouă cu broaşte (“raining frogs”)

Portuguese (Brazil): está caindo um pau-d’água (“a stick of water is falling”)

And many more!

Comments
5 Responses to “Friday’s Phrase – Raining Cats and Dogs”
  1. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the French! I mean, I personally have never stood near enough at the right time to know how much a cow pees!

  2. meenawalia says:

    It’s actually raining cats and dogs here and m.reading your post sipping coffee and enjoying the scenery that rains has made even more beautiful..

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