Keeping with this rain theme that I’ve blogged about for the past two days, today it’s a look at a popular idiom, “raining cats and dogs’’ and unless you’ve read up a little on the origins of this idiom, be ready for a surprise.
First of all, it is not related to the well-known antipathy between dogs and cats like in the expression, “fighting like cats and dogs” (and probably no way connected to Bill Murray’s utterance in Ghostbusters—“dogs and cats living together”). Nor is this idiom in any literal sense about cats and dogs falling from the sky due to some meteorological freak storm—where smaller creatures such as frogs and fish have been carried up into the sky, by a tornado for example, to later “rain” down.
One interesting possibility of the idiom’s origin is from Norse Mythology. Dogs and wolves were attendants to Odin the god of storms and sailors associated them with rain. That doesn’t really explain the cats in the idiom, so maybe we’ve got to look at witches who often took the form of a cat, and yes, rode the wind. Not quite falling from the sky with dogs, so we can pretty much forget about this one.
One very strong possibility, at least one that made the rounds a few years back, was that cats and dogs were washed from roofs during stormy weather, specifically thatched roof houses. Supposedly, according an account of life in the 1500’s, these thatch roofs were an ideal place for small animals to live, including cats and dogs. And then of course, when it rained, the roof would become slippery and those little animals would slip and fall off the roof, including the cats and dogs. Thus the saying, “it’s raining cats and dogs.”
Well, this theory doesn’t hold water (pun intended) because in order for us to believe this tale, we would also have to believe the dogs live in roofs. Now, I’ve heard about a cat on a hot tin roof, but if we were to accept this bizarre idea—for dogs to have slipped off a roof in the pouring rain—one would have to wonder, what the heck is a dog doing sitting on the roof in the rain? If you require further debunking, hardly the place for man’s best friend to head for shelter in bad weather, right?
Another suggestion for all you etymologists out there is that “raining cats and dogs” comes from a version of the French word catadoupe, meaning waterfall. Well, my French is limited to Perrier, French fries and chaise lounge, so I can’t really say one way or another if this suggestion is also valid. Sacre blue!
Now we can come to the truth behind this idiomatic chestnut. The most likely source of “raining cats and dogs” is the “prosaic fact that, in the filthy streets of 17th and 18th century England, heavy rain would occasionally carry along dead animals and other debris.” Although cats and dogs did not fall from the sky, perhaps the sight of these animals floating by after a storm caused the coining of this idiom. To be sure, Jonathan Swift described such an event in his satirical poem “A Description of a City Shower” (1710)
“Now from all Parts the swelling Kennels flow,
And bear their Trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all Hues and Odours seem to tell
What Street they sail’d from, by their Sight and Smell.
They, as each Torrent drives, with rapid Force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their Course,
And in huge Confluent join’d at Snow-Hill Ridge,
Fall from the Conduit, prone to Holburn-Bridge.
Sweeping from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts, and Blood,
Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnip-tops come tumbling down the Flood.”
While Swift’s poem—a denunciation of contemporary London society—is metaphorical and doesn’t describe a specific flood, it is likely with his description of water-borne animal corpses, he was referring to an occurrence that many readers would know.
However, Swift wasn’t the first one to make such a reference. In 1653 the phrase was used in a modified form in Richard Brome’s comedy The City Wit or the Woman Wears Breeches (that must have been a real shocker back then) with a reference to stormy weather: “It shall raine…Dogs and Polecats.”
But let’s turn our attention to Swift again. He would use the expression again, in a form that we all have come to enjoy to use in his A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation (1738) when he writes, “I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.”
Therefore, Swift’s allusion to the streets flowing with dead cats and dogs in 1710 and his explicit use of it again in 1738 suggests the most likely origin. So, the next time it rains cats and dogs you have poor sanitation and Jonathan Swift to thank for this colorful expression.