Most English idioms don’t make much sense from a logical point of view. It almost seems like old-age English folks strung random words together and coined idioms that gained traction with the local community and eventually got accepted as part of the language.
Of all English idioms, few are as particular as the expression “raining cats and dogs”. Most cats and dogs hate getting wet, and you’d find them nowhere near the rain. Moreover, these adorable creatures are mostly landbound and have no business falling through the air. Well, maybe cats do, but that’s beside the point.
Cats and dogs are far removed from rain, so where did the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs come from?” Although there is much contention as to the origin of the phrase, it is widely believed that author Jonathan Swift’s writings popularized its use. Keep reading to find out more.
What Does “Raining Cats and Dogs” Mean?
It’s raining cats and dogs is a curious and common phrase known as an idiom. It is often used to describe heavy or torrential rain that would be unpleasant to be caught up in. This idiom can be used in the past, present or future tense. It’s a common phrase in most English-speaking countries but mostly in Europe and the US.
It may be an effective idiom because when it rains hard, the raindrops seem large and heavy, like the size of a cat or dog.
Top 3 Theories on the Origin of “Raining Cats and Dogs”
There are several explanations for the origin of the axiom raining cats and dogs. Some of the most common ones include the following:
1. Norse Mythology
The phrase might have originated from Norse mythology and superstition. In Norse mythology, cats were thought to have immense control over the elements, and dogs were a signal of the wind. Odin, who was the principal god of Norse mythology, had a dog attendant who represented the strong blasts of wind during heavy rain. Cats, on the other hand, were thought of as witches gliding through the wind.
However, this is just a theory with too many holes in it. For starters, Odin wasn’t a storm god and is mostly associated with a horse and two ravens. Again, Odin has no relationship with cats and witches. Plus, there’s no way an English idiom could have its roots in Scandinavian oral tradition. The Norse mythology theory is thus dead on arrival.
2. Alteration of a Greek Phrase
Another theory suggests that the phrase “raining cats and dogs” is an alteration of the Greek phrase “kata doska.” This seems like a worthy contender for alteration since even modern Greeks use the phrase to express heavy downpours.
The Greek phrase “katadoupoi” also bears little resemblance to “cats and dogs.” Katadoupoi describes the large cataracts on the River Nile. These cataracts saw copious amounts of water crashing into the rocks beneath, the same way heavy rains thrash our roofs. However, “katadoupoi” is not the true origin of the phrase “raining cats and dogs.”
3. Alteration of an Italian Phrase
Another theory is that Nelson sailors traversing Italian waters might have picked up the phrase “tempo cattivo,” which loosely translates to bad weather. There’s certainly “cat” in cattivo, and bad weather and heavy rain are almost interchangeable, but where are the canines in all this? Nowhere, and like the other theories, this one also doesn’t hold.
When Did “Raining Cats and Dogs” First Appear in Literature
The phrase “raining cats and dogs” or something alluding to it has appeared quite a few times in early English literature. Some of the earliest appearances include:
Olor Iscanus (1651) by Vaughan Henry
The phrase “raining cats and dogs” or something similar first appeared in English literature on Olor Iscanus, which was a collection of poems and translations by Henry Vaughan. Mr. Vaughan was a Welsh metaphysics poet, translator, author, and physician. In one of his poems, he referred to a roof that was safe against raining dogs and cats. “Dogs and cats rained in the shower,” he wrote
City Witt (1653) by Richard Brome
A year later, a somewhat similar phrase appeared in Richard Brome’s comedy play titled City Witt. In the play, he wrote, “It shall rain dogs and polecats.” It’s worth noting that polecats aren’t actually cats but a species of mustelid that are native to Eurasia and North Africa and common in Britain at the turn of the 19th century.
Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation (1738) by Jonathan Swift
In Swift’s “A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation,” one of the characters is apprehensive that it will “rain cats and dogs.” By this time, the phrase had gained a lot of traction in England and surrounding areas, eating out other phrases like “raining pitchforks” and “raining stair-rods”.
This is the most plausible explanation for the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
Interestingly, a poem he had written in 1710 described a heavy downpour that “flooded the streets, sweeping cats and dogs in its wake.’’
There is a lot of speculation over where the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” originated. However, it’s clear that Jonathan Swift, the Anglo-Irish author coined or popularized the phrase.
Whether it makes any sense is up for debate, but it remains an accepted idiom that rolls off the tongue. Don’t be afraid to use it in your conversations or writing when you get the opportunity.
Featured Image Credit: Elena Arkadova, Shutterstock
- What Does “Raining Cats and Dogs” Mean?
- Top 3 Theories on the Origin of “Raining Cats and Dogs”
- When Did “Raining Cats and Dogs” First Appear in Literature
- Final Thoughts