By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
A few days ago, we delved into the curious origins and meaning of the phrase ‘curiosity killed the cat’. That got us thinking about another popular feline phrase, ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’. We all know the rough meaning of the phrase: namely, if it’s raining cats and dogs, it’s raining heavily, the heavens have opened, it’s torrential out there, and so on.
But where does the expression ‘raining cats and dogs’ actually come from?
There are various theories that ‘raining cats and dogs’ is derived from a foreign phrase (e.g. from the Greek kata doksa, ‘contrary to expectation’) which the English adopted, although these have largely been rejected.
There is something about the expression ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ that is decidedly British: it is a distinctly British idiom, although most languages have a similar phrase – not involving cats and dogs, but using somewhat extreme imagery to convey the forcefulness and heaviness of the rainfall. (Of all of these colourful expressions, our favourite may be the French il pleut comme vache qui pisse, ‘it is raining like a peeing cow’.)
In 1651, the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan published a poem which contains the lines:
And gladly would against the Fair-day fit
Themselves with such a roof, that can secure
Their wares from dogs and cats rained in shower;
Then, in the following century, Jonathan Swift – who, elsewhere, invented the girls’ name Vanessa (it was a pet name for his friend Esther Vanhomrigh) – concluded his 1710 poem ‘Description of a City Shower’ with the triplet:
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.
If this doesn’t exactly give us ‘raining cats and dogs’, it does at least give us drowned puppies and dead cats swept up in the ‘flood’ of a rain-shower. But then, in 1738, Swift published his Polite Conversation, in which his character Lord Sparkish observes, ‘I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs’. So, ‘raining cats and dogs’ was a familiar idiom by the 1730s.
But we need to go back to the sixteenth century, it seems, to find the probable origins of our modern feline and canine idiom.
Anatoly Liberman (in the link provided above to the debunking of the foreign origin theories) directs us to the Oxford English Dictionary, and to ‘cat-bolt’, where we find a quotation from Gabriel Harvey’s 1592 book Pierce’s Supererogation: ‘In steed of thunderboltese, shooteth nothing but dogboltes, or catboltes.’
This suggests that, even by the 1590s, the idea of using cats and dogs to describe extreme weather was established, and the association of ‘cats and dogs’ with heavy rain was one that had already been made.
In the last analysis, perhaps the true history of this phrase is one which relies on the very nonsensicality of its meaning: rather than referring to cats and dogs being uprooted from thatched roofs during bad weather (another, competing, theory), the phrase is, like the French urinating cow, a classic example of using animal imagery to exaggerate the extremeness of the weather being described. In other words, the meaning, or sense, of ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ lies in its lack of sense: it is glorious nonsense.
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I love this article! Thank you for this one…
And we do love a bit of nonsense, and rhyme, alliteration. Just something that falls nicely on the ear. Another fascinating post
Thank you! I agree. ‘A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men’, as a wise man once said.
Oh, but I cannot be lumped in with the “wisest of men”, but I do enjoy much nonsense.