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You may recall from last week’s post that while I was researching the fish rains in Honduras, The Fourteen-Year-Old wandered in. After skimming the National Geographic article on “Strange Rains,” she was struck by their need to point out that while small animals like fish, polliwogs, and frogs are often scooped up by waterspouts and dumped with the rain, cats and dogs never are.
“If it never actually rains cats and dogs, Mommyo, where does the phrase ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ come from?”
That, I told her, would have to wait for some other time when I wasn’t knee deep in fish rain facts. We made a Caterpickles agreement that I would answer the question this week.
What did we know?
When I mentioned to my brother that I had spent a good chunk of the previous week researching animal rains and was going to spend the next week tracing down the origin of the phrase, “it’s raining cats and dogs,” he promptly volunteered a theory of his own. “It has to do with thatched roofs, Shala.”
Apparently, in the before times, when thatched roofs were common, cats and dogs would perch on top of them. The problem with thatch roofs, though, is that they don’t stand up to a hard driving rain that well. When a storm came and weakened the thatch, whatever cats and dogs were perched on it at the time would fall through it and into people’s houses.
Hence the phrase, “it’s raining cats and dogs.”
My brother knows a lot of things, but he’s also very good at tricking me with tales that are just plausible enough. As a result, I absolutely one hundred percent want to believe him, and yet…
Could that possibly be true? Or is it just an old(er) brother’s tale?
Where could we look for more information?
Relatively early in my maternal career, it became clear that I was facing years of answering “Why is it called that?” questions about the origins of various words, phrases, and idioms, such as chicken pox, Fifth disease, or flea markets. After fielding the first barrage, I invested in a copy of Robert Hendrickson’s Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins for our home library. Hendrickson has been writing about various words, phrases, and idioms and why we use them for decades, and has saved me countless hours in the process.
Sure enough, Hendrickson had an entry for the phrase “raining cats and dogs.” It’s only about 180 words long, but that was long enough for Hendrickson to pack in at least four conjectures on the origin of the term. (Oddly, he didn’t include my brother’s thatch roof theory.)
The theories Hendrickson did provide gave me plenty to work with. Trying to figure out which one was most likely to be correct sent me on a fascinating linguistic goose chase.
By the time I was done researching everything, I had 7(!) different origin stories to choose from. Seven is far too many to talk about in one post, so I’m going to tell you about two of them today, and save the remaining five (which are much shorter) for next week.
Let’s get started.
Theory #1: The phrase ‘raining cats and dogs’ refers to literal bodies of dead cats and dogs carried through the flooded streets of 17th Century England after an especially hard rain.
In his entry, Hendrickson speculates that the phrase “raining cats and dogs” was first coined in response to the distressing tendency of 17th century English city streets to become raging rivers during heavy downpours. Hendrickson theorized that the bodies of dead dogs and cats would inevitably have been among the various types of street filth flushed out during these storms. Hence the phrase, “raining cats and dogs.”
Can that possibly be true? Well, maybe.
I’ve gathered from other reading on life in the (slightly earlier) Elizabethan era that in the days before the routine street sanitation, these sorts of flash floods were just about the only systematic way the streets were cleaned.
In a March 2016 article for the British Library, Liza Picard points out that with only an informal collection of street pickers to clean them, Elizabethan streets quickly became clogged with muck from the teeming mass of horses, pigs, cattle, sheep, and humans who used them daily. It’s not hard to imagine that the occasional cat, rat, dog, or other animal carcass among all that muck, especially in a relatively crowded place like London.
A nice hard rain that swept at least some of this mess into the Thames might have improved London’s streets considerably, even if it did throw London’s primary source of drinking water into peril.
So the theory seems plausible. Maybe even possible. But likely? Hard to say. It depends on how unsanitary the streets of England really were during the reign of the Tudors. This 1934 article from the American Journal of Public Health certainly makes a passionate argument that we have greatly overestimated the muck of the 16th century.
“In studying the development of public health activities in 16th century England, we find that it runs parallel with and, in fact, is contingent upon the growth of a strong, centralized government under the Tudors. The attitude of the State, especially in the reign of that amazing ruler, Elizabeth, was an enlightened one, seeking to guard and foster the welfare of all of the people. We are apt to forget today that in Elizabeth’s time government regulation of industry and of many phases of the life of the people was the accepted order. It is significant that from such a philosophy of government sprang many of our basic public health procedures.– Sanford V. Larkey, M.D. “Public Health in Tudor England.” American Journal of Public Health
“Manifestations of this ideal are seen in the various efforts to better the sanitary and health conditions of the people, not only in attempting to control epidemics, but in aiming also to eradicate some of the fundamental factors in the cause and spread of disease.
“Housing plans were proposed to relieve the overcrowding of cities, pure food laws were passed, rules made to keep the streets clean, and a commission appointed to regulate the disposal of sewage. All of these projects had the definite purpose of protecting and improving the health of the populace….
“In almost every respect the towns were cleaner and more healthy in the 16th century than they were in the 19th Century.”
and the Nation’s Health, November 1934, pp. 1099-1102.
Clearly, if you really wanted to see streets that were a menace to public health, you would do better to time travel to 19th century London, the period Johnson describes in The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.
Theory #2: The phrase “raining cats and dogs” comes from a 1652 British play written by Richard Brome
After making his case for why “raining cats and dogs” might have referred to the sort of intense rain capable of cleaning filthy Elizabethan streets, Hendrickson decided to test his hypothesis by checking the first use of the idiom in the written record. In this case, the first usage of the phrase Hendrickson could find was in Richard Brome’s 1652 play, The City Witt, which includes the line “it shall rain dogs and polecats.”
Unfortunately for this origin story, polecats are more like weasels than cats. Hendrickson contented himself with noting that this probably means the idiom didn’t originate with Brome’s play. He showed no interest in exploring the matter further.
Hendrickson may have been done, but I wasn’t.
I decided to track down the Richard Brome play from Hendrickson’s entry and review the evidence for myself.
I don’t know how familiar you are with the Google Books project. I learned Google Books existed because my husband, who works at Google, told me about it. Basically, Google has committed to working with various university libraries to create a publicly accessible digital archive of their collections. There are copyright issues with works printed in the last 100 years, so only snippets are available of most of them, but the archive is a great resource for tracking down out of print works in the public domain.
This situation, in which I want to quickly check a quote in a play by a 17th century writer I’d never heard of, is tailor-made for a Google Books hunt.
Thanks to the good folks at Google Books, I found an 1873 collection of 15 comedies by Richard Brome. One of them, thankfully, was The City Witt. On opening it, I learned that the full title of the play is a glorious reflection of the world in Brome’s time: The City Witt (Or, The Woman Who Wears Breeches, A Comedy).
Searching the play for the word “polecat” quickly brought me to page 334, where I learned that the character who spoke the line is named Sarbego. In contrast to other characters in the play who are identified by their occupations or relationships (apprentice, father, maid, wife, and so on.), Sarbego is identified simply as “A Pedant.”
A mere 26 words from the play provides the context for both the phrase “dogs and polecats” and Sarbego’s character description:
“[Sarbego] From henceforth Erit Fluvius Deucalionis,
The world shall flow with dunces; Regnabitque,
and it shall Raine
Dogmata Polla Sophon, Dogs and Polecats and so forth.” Brome, Richard. The Dramatic Works of Richard Brome: Containing Fifteen Comedies Now First Collected in Three Volumes …. United Kingdom, J. Pearson, 1873. P. 334
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that those italicized phrases were most likely words pulled from another language, and not the names of characters interrupting each other to deliver the lines in some sort of cobbled together chorus line. What can I say? It has been hard enough for me to read books lately, much less Elizabethan-era plays.
However, I did finally get there. The fact that the cast notes identified Sarbego as a pedant clued me in to what was likely going on here. Given the Elizabethan playwright’s tendency to poke fun at stuffy academic types in their comedies — see Polonius in Hamlet for another example — odds were good that at least some of these fancy foreign phrases would be partially or completely made up.
Not being a world class genius versed in the classics like Sarbego, I didn’t recognize any of the terms myself.
Fortunately, Google has yet another tool for that. Google Translate is a free service that lets you drop in phrases from other languages and have them translated for you. You can tell Google which languages to use, or you can simply dump in a phrase and ask Google to identify the language for you.
In this case, I thought the phrases might be Latin, but I wasn’t sure, so I asked Google to detect the languages, with mixed results.
Google Translate identified Erit Fluvius as a Latin phrase meaning “a stream will,” but it didn’t recognize either Deucalionis or Regnabitque. Those could easily have been the made-up words. To my inner ear Deucalionis suggested the ideas of dunces, and Regnabitque seemed like a collection of Latin-esque syllables that someone who learned just enough Latin to be dangerous might want to pass off as the Latin word for rain.
So I moved on to Dogmata Polla Sophon. Much to my surprise, Google Translate identified this as a Greek phrase meaning “doctrines of many wise men.”
Further evidence for my “pedant spouts nonsense for comedic effect” theory, but not necessarily helpful when it comes to the question of the origin of the phrase “raining cats and dogs.”
But wait, there’s more….
Brome’s play was the only literary source Hendrickson documented. But in the course of my investigation, I came across a Library of Congress blog post that had some interesting thoughts on the role of Jonathan Swift, as well as a couple of other possibilities Hendrickson hadn’t even mentioned, including my brother’s tale of cats on a weak thatched roof.
But frankly, this feels like enough for one day, so let’s stop here and save the Jonathan Swift speculation and the remaining theories for next week.
- Update to a Past Caterpickles: “Why does it rain fish in Honduras?” (Caterpickles)
- “Why is it called that?”: The Chickenpox Edition (Caterpickles)
- “Why is it called that?”: The Flea Market Edition (Caterpickles)
- “Why is it called Fifth Disease?” (Caterpickles)
- “Seven Man Made Wonders: London Sewers” (BBC Home)
- “Cities in Elizabethan England” (British Library)
- “What Happened to Google’s Effort to Scan Millions of University Library Books?” (EdSurge)
- The Dramatic Works of Richard Brome (Google Books)
- “Public Health in Tudor England” (Archive of American Journal of Public Health)
Other resources used in researching this post:
- Google Translate
- Google Books
- Robert Hendrickson’s Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. His entry on “raining cats and dogs” appears on page 696.
- Wikimedia Commons