Word Geek – Raining cats and dogs
Here in Britain we like to talk about the weather. Extensively. Following on from Word Geek’s phrase of the month last month, ‘a rainy day’ Word Geek looks at another weather-related phrase this month: ‘raining cats and dogs’.
The phrase is commonly used to indicate very heavy rainfall but the origins of the expression are not definitive. The similar phrase ‘fight like cats and dogs’, which exemplifies the well-known hostility between the two animal types, is more understandable but not related.
It has been suggested that the phrase derives from mythology as dogs were attendants to Odin (the God of storms) and sailors associated them with rain. Witches are supposed to have ridden on the wind, often taking the appearance of cats. However, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to support the theory that the two are linked.
A widely repeated tale is that the phrase derives from life in the 1500s when dogs and cats slipped off thatched roofs when they became wet from rain. Although, what they were all doing up there before it started raining is another question entirely! There is also no evidence to back up this claim.
The most reasonable explanation for the phrase ‘raining cats and dogs’ is the fact that in 17th/18th century England dead animals and debris could be seen being washed along the filthy streets in times of heavy rain. In 1710 Jonathan Swift described the awful sight in his satirical poem ‘A Description of a City Shower’ which his audience would have been familiar with.
The phrase was also documented in 1653 in a modified form, in Richard Broome’s comedy ‘The City Wit or The Woman Wears the Breeches’, where stormy weather was described with the line:
“It shall raine… dogs and Polecats.”
Although polecats aren’t actually cats, the linguistic leap between the two animals isn’t that far and the essence of Broome’s phrase is the same.
The first documented occasion of the current phrase occurs in Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation’ in 1738:
“I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs.”
It’s a fair conclusion that the phrase, as we now know it, was coined by Swift due to the poor sanitation in England. His earlier allusion to the streets flowing with dead cats and dogs in 1710 and then his explicit mention of ‘rain cats and dogs’ are good evidence for the origins of the phrase we now commonly use to describe heavy rain.