Idioms are phrases that we use everyday and, for most native English speakers, we know exactly what they mean without having to think about it… but when you do stop to think about it, some of these phrases are pretty strange.
Have you ever wondered, for example, where phrases like “raining cat’s and dogs” and “going off half-cock” came from?
In this blog series, we will examine various English idioms and find out where and how they originated!
This Month’s Idiom: “To Rain Cats and Dogs”
The English idiom “to rain cats and dogs” is used to suggest that it is raining heavily. The animals, cats and dogs, really have nothing to do with the meaning of the idiom. So where did this odd phrase come from?
Where Does It Come From?
According to the Library of Congress, no one knows for sure where the idiom came from, and there are several possibilities.
The phrase first appears in print in 1651 in a collection of poems by Henry Vaughan. Vaughan mentions a particularly well-made roof that would keep out “dogs and cats rained in shower” (Library of Congress). The following year, the playwright Richard Brome wrote “It shall rain dogs and polecats” in one of his comedies (Library of Congress).
Etymologists have examined several possible origins of the phrase. Here are some of the most likely theories:
- In Norse mythology, Odin, the god of thunder and storms, was often depicted with dogs and wolves, symbols of the wind. Furthermore, witches were said to ride their booms during storms, and they were often depicted with black cats. The cats, themselves, became a sign of heavy rains for sailors. It is possible the idiom came from these Norse ideas and that it implied that a storm came with strong winds (dogs were a symbol of the wind) and heavy rain (cats were a symbol of heavy rain).
- The Greek expression “cata doxa” means “contrary to experience or belief.” When pronounced, the phrase is similar to “cats and dogs.” It is possible that the idiom comes from this phrase and suggests that it is raining abnormally or unbelievably hard.
- The Old English word “catadupe” means a “cataract or waterfall.” It is possible that “raining cats and dogs” comes from this, similarly pronounced phrase, and implies that the rain is like a waterfall.
It has also been suggested that cats and dogs used to huddle in thatched roofs during storms to get out of the rain and that they would be washed away by the storms. According to the Library of Congress, this theory is false. However, it is possible that dead animals (probably rats, rather than cats and dogs) being washed down the streets of British cities during heavy storms could have contributed to the phrase’s origin.