03 June 2015

It’s raining cats and dogs


As I long ago wrote in my most popular blog post ever – ‘Making a mountain out of a molehill’, published in November 2010 – language, and how we use it, is truly fascinating.

During my time as a teacher of English to foreign students, I was frequently intrigued and delighted to discover from my students what our English sayings and proverbs morphed into in their languages. For example, as it crossed cultures, in the proverb ‘Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill’ the mountain changed to a bull, an elephant, a stallion, a camel and a hen, and the molehill became variously a mouse, a fly, a flea, a mosquito and a feather.

Another idiom that displays similarly fascinating transformations is ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’. The phrase first appeared as ‘dogs and cats rained in shower’ in British poet Henry Vaughan’s 1651 collection of poems Olor Iscanus, but probably didn’t become popular until after the 1738 publication of Jonathan (of Gulliver’s Travels fame) Swift’s Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, in which one of his characters worries that it will ‘rain cats and dogs’.

Did they come down in the last heavy shower?

Etymologists have suggested various origins for the saying. In his 1710 poem ‘City Shower’, Swift himself wrote that floods left dead animals in the streets so the phrase may have its origins in this phenomenon. It may derive from the Greek expression cata doxa, which translates as ‘contrary to experience or belief’, implying the rainfall is unusually or unbelievably heavy, or it may come from the old English catadupe, which means waterfall or cataract, suggesting particularly torrential rain. The Library of Congress website has a further suggestion, which is my personal favourite:

Odin, the Norse god of storms, was often pictured with dogs and wolves, which were symbols of wind. Witches, who supposedly rode their brooms during storms, were often pictured with black cats, which became signs of heavy rain for sailors. Therefore, “raining cats and dogs” may refer to a storm with wind (dogs) and heavy rain (cats).

No witches here.

Those thin whisps of black in the distance might well be witches!





We will never know the truth of its origin but we can still appreciate the imagery of the idiom, though I’m not certain you will be quite as delighted by the variations of the phrase in other languages.

Some cultures follow similar ideas to the English, with animals of various types falling from the sky. Many have phrases that describe the volume of rain so liken the water to falling from a bucket or by the bucket-load, but there are other highly colourful and rather bizarre phrases. These, from Wikipedia, are some of the modifications that took my fancy:

·                     It’s raining frogs and snakes. ~ Spanish
·                     It’s raining snakes and lizards. ~ Brazilian Portuguese
·                     It is raining kittens. ~ Flemish

Kittens and puppies must surely come from rainbows.

·                     It’s raining puppies. ~ German
·                     It’s raining shoemakers’ apprentices. ~ Danish
·                     It’s raining troll hags [female trolls]. ~ Norwegian
·                     It’s raining little devils. ~ Swedish
·                     It’s raining husbands. ~ Colombian Spanish
·                     It is raining old women and sticks. ~ Welsh
·                     It’s raining chair legs. ~ Greek
·                     It’s raining falling axes. ~ Croatian
·                     It is raining a stream of mallets. ~ Hindi and Nepali
·                     It’s raining wheelbarrows. ~ Czech
·                     It’s raining by the pot (or bucket or jug) load. ~ Portuguese
·                     It is raining like a peeing cow. ~ French
·                     It’s raining pieces of dung head-first. ~ Argentinian Spanish

Note to self: Don’t visit Argentina in the rainy season!

Rain can also be beautiful.