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The meaning and origin of the expression: Raining cats and dogs

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Raining cats and dogs

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Raining cats and dogs'?

Raining very heavily.

Origin - the short version

No one knows the precise source of this 17th century expression, but we can be sure that it didn't originate because animals fell from the sky.

Origin - the full story

Raining cats and dogsThis is an interesting old English phrase in that, although we don't know who coined it or why, it has spawned a host of speculative derivations. Let's can get the fanciful proposed derivations out of the way...

The phrase isn't in any sense literal, that is, it doesn't record an incident where cats and dogs fell from the sky. Small creatures, of the size of frogs or fish, do occasionally get carried skywards in freak weather, but there's no record of groups of them being scooped up in that way and causing this phrase to be coined. Not that we need to study meteorological records for that - it's plainly implausible.

Jonathan Swift described the streets being awash with the dead bodies of animals in his satirical poem 'A Description of a City Shower', first published in the 1710 collection of the Tatler magazine:

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.

The poem was a denunciation of contemporary London society and its meaning has been much debated but there can be little doubt that it is metaphorical rather than literal. Cats and dogs don't float about in the street, whatever the weather.

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Did domestic pets ever rain down?
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One supposed origin is that the phrase derives from mythology. Dogs and wolves were attendants to Odin, the god of storms, and sailors associated them with rain. Witches, who often took the form of their familiars - cats, are supposed to have ridden the wind. Well, some evidence would be nice. There doesn't appear to be any to support this notion.

It has also been suggested that cats and dogs were washed from roofs during heavy weather. This is a widely repeated tale. It got a new lease of life with the e-mail message "Life in the 1500s", which began circulating on the Internet in 1999. Here's the relevant part of that:

I'll describe their houses a little. You've heard of thatch roofs, well that's all they were. Thick straw, piled high, with no wood underneath. They were the only place for the little animals to get warm. So all the pets; dogs, cats and other small animals, mice, rats, bugs, all lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery so sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Thus the saying, "it's raining cats and dogs."

This is nonsense of course. It hardly needs debunking but, lest there be any doubt, let's do that anyway. In order to believe this tale we would have to accept that dogs lived in thatched roofs, which, of course, they didn't. Even accepting that bizarre idea, for dogs to have slipped off when it rained they would have needed to be sitting on the outside of the thatch - hardly the place an animal would head for as shelter in bad weather.

Another suggestion is that 'raining cats and dogs' comes from a version of the French word 'catadoupe', meaning waterfall. Again, no evidence. If the phrase were just 'raining cats', or even if there also existed a French word 'dogadoupe', we might be going somewhere with this one. As there isn't, let's pass this by.

There's a similar phrase originating from the North of England - 'raining stair-rods'. No one has gone to the effort of speculating that this is from mythic reports of stairs being carried into the air in storms and falling on gullible peasants. It's just a rather expressive phrase giving a graphic impression of heavy rain - as is 'raining cats and dogs'.

We do know that the phrase was in use in a modified form in 1653, when Richard Brome's comedy The City Wit or The Woman Wears the Breeches referred to stormy weather with the line:

"It shall raine... Dogs and Polecats".

Polecats aren't cats as such but the jump between them in linguistic rather than veterinary terms isn't large and it seems clear that Broome's version was essentially the same phrase. The first appearance of the currently used version is 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".

The fact that Swift had alluded to the streets flowing with dead cats and dogs some years earlier and later used 'rain cats and dogs' explicitly seems to point to a picture, in his mind at least, of cats and dogs being carried along in a flood. Whether Swift coined 'raining cats and dogs' and whether he meant that to be a reference to the animals being washed through the streets in heavy weather is entirely speculative.

The well-known antipathy between cats and dogs and their consequential fights has been suggested as a metaphor for stormy weather. That at least is a plausible theory. It pupports 'cats and dogs' to be an intensifier and that the expression means 'raining in a bad way'.

In truth, what was in the mind of whoever coined this expression is now lost to us. I have to admit defeat and say that I don't know the origin of this phrase.

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