Tadpole's Outdoor Blog

October 20, 2013


Filed under: Neal Murphy — Freddie Keel @ 6:56 am


The other day I asked a friend if we received much rain.  His reply was, “It rained cats and dogs for a while”.  I understood what he meant by that phrase, but upon reflection wondered about its origin.  I had read somewhere that the phrase dates back to the 16th century when houses had thatched roofs.  It seems that the roofs were favorite places for cats and dogs to sleep.  When it came a very hard rain, the animals would fall off or through the thatched roof, thereby it was said that it rained cats and dogs.  However, further research has proven that origin as incorrect.


The fact is that the experts just don’t know the origin of the phrase.  It might have roots in Norse mythology, medieval superstitions, or from the obsolete word catadupe (waterfall), or perhaps dead animals in the streets of Britain being picked up by storm waters.

Research shows that British poet, Henry Vaughan referred to the phrase in 1651 in a collection of poems.  In 1738, Jonathan Swift wrote about the subject in his Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation publication.  However, etymologists – people who study the origins of words – have suggested several mythological and literal explanations of why people say “it’s raining cats and dogs” to describe a heavy downpour.  Here are some of the most popular theories:

  • 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).
  • “Cats and dogs” may come from the Greek expression cata doxa, which means “contrary to experience or belief.”  If it is raining cats and dogs, it is raining unusually or unbelievably hard.
  • “Cats and dogs” may be a perversion of the now obsolete word catadupe, which in old English meant “a waterfall”.  So, to say “it’s raining cats and dogs” might be to say “it’s raining waterfalls.”

There are other similes which employ falls of improbable objects as figurative ways of expressing the sensory overload of noise and confusion that can occur during a violent rainstorm.  People have said that it’s raining like pitchforks, hammer handles, and even chicken coops.  It may be that the version with cats and dogs fits into this model, without needing to invoke supernatural beliefs or inadequate drainage.

Well, there you have it.  It appears that on this particular saying one has to make up his/her own mind about which explanation suits your fancy.  If the experts, the etymologists, can’t figure it out, then I am sure I can’t.  But that won’t keep me from using it the next time it “rains cats and dogs”, and will try not to step in a poodle.

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