Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

Where does the phrase “raining cats and dogs” come from anyway?: Part 2

The then six-year-old and her father walk through NYC’s Central Park in a rainstorm. (Photo: Shala Howell)

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If you’re just joining us, we are hip-deep into a two-week investigation into the origin of the phrase “raining cats and dogs.” In last week’s post, we discussed the possibility that it might have come either from lax sanitation practices in Elizabethan England (Theory #1) or the “it shall raine dogs and polecats” line in Richard Brome’s 1652 play, “The City Witt” (Theory #2).

Those theories, while fun to explore, were only 2 of 7(!) possibilities I uncovered in the course of my investigation. Today, I’ll examine the remaining 5 and pick my favorite.

Theory #3: The phrase “raining cats and dogs” was popularized by Jonathan Swift in the 1700s

Painting of Jonathan Swift shows him wearing an immense wig, sitting at his desk with a feather pen in his hand and a sheaf of papers. He's looking off to the side as if to see who has interrupted him. This week he doesn't look irritated to me. Last week, he kind of did.
I promised we’d get back to you this week, Mr. Swift, and look, here we are. (Charles Jervas portrait of Jonathan Swift, 1718, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

During my investigation, I learned that the Library of Congress devotes a portion of its website to resolving these sorts of questions, which it dubs Everyday Mysteries. Their page on raining cats and dogs” mentions Brome’s play, but only as a starting point for discussion. They are far more interested in the role Jonathan Swift may have played.

Some 58 years after Brome’s “dogs and polecats” Swift described these intense floods in his 1710 poem, “A Description of a City Shower” as being intense enough to sweep “drowned puppies” and “dead cats” through the streets. You can read the entire poem on the Poetry Foundation’s website here. The key phrases appear in the final stanza.

Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.

Final stanza of Jonathan Swift’s 1710 poem “A Description of a City Shower” via Poetry Foundation

You may have noticed that Swift never expressly uses the phrase “raining cats and dogs” in his poem. It wasn’t until his 1738 satire, “Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation,” that Swift explicitly used the phrase “raining cats and dogs” to describe the weather. The Library of Congress speculates that by 1738, Swift would have been sufficiently popular to have prompted the general public to begin using the idiom in regular conversation.

Did he really though? Or did he just use a phrase that was already widely used in conversation by society at large?

In Episode 45 of their fascinating podcast, Word Matters, the linguists at Merriam Webster point out that it can be really hard to tell when the first literary mention of a word or phrase is in fact the first time that word or phrase has ever been used. Maybe the author really did come up with something completely original. But maybe they were just the first to write down an already commonly known word or phrase. Whatever the case was here, it seems fairly clear that Swift was popular enough to introduce the phrase “raining cats and dogs” to a much wider audience.

Theory #4: The phrase “raining cats and dogs” comes from a Greek phrase meaning “an unlikely occurrence

Having thoroughly explored the possible literary origins of the phrase, I returned to Hendrickson’s original entry to see what else he had to offer me. After dispensing with the flash flood and Brome theories, Hendrickson launched into three merry speculations that were all essentially variations on the theme of English speaker hears phrase in another language and misunderstands it, and so an idiom is born.  The first of these apparently derives from a Greek saying which Hendrickson claims sounds to the English ear like raining cats and dogs but actually means an unlikely occurrence.

One of the nice features of Google Translate is that you can use it to hear what various phrases would sound like in other languages. Since I had it up on my computer already (you’ll recall I used it in last week’s post), I simply asked it to translate an unlikely occurrence from English to Greek. I then played the resulting translation ένα απίθανο συμβάν [éna apíthano symván] on my computer speakers so I could decide for myself whether this seemed plausible.

Short answer: No. Perhaps this was not the phrase Hendrickson was thinking of.

Curious, I tried Dogmata Polla Sophon [Δόγματα Πολλά Σοφών] next. After all, Hendrickson did directly reference the lines in Brome’s play in which it appeared. That was closer, although having grown up Catholic in Texas, I heard the first two words in this phrase as dogma and the Spanish pollo [chicken].

If this is the proper origin story, then we should all take a moment to be grateful that I wasn’t in charge of developing this particular idiom, because if I had, we’d all be wandering around exclaiming about how it was raining theology and chickens.

Clearly I’m missing something here. Which honestly isn’t all that surprising. Greek is a fairly robust language, and not being or having easy access to a native Greek speaker, identifying the precise phrase that Hendrickson thinks sounded enough like “raining cats and dogs” to have spawned the idiom seemed like a bit of a long shot.

Naturally, the Library of Congress has something to say about this as well. They identify the Greek phrase in question as being cata doxa, which they translate as “contrary to experience or belief.” Which I suppose implies that English speakers might have started using a mispronounced version of this Greek phrase to express disbelief at how unusually hard it’s raining out there.

For the record, Google Translate claims cata doxa means “by glory.” I didn’t know what to do with that, but I had two more conjectures from Hendrickson to explore and there was also the question of where my brother had gotten his theory about thatched roofs from, so I decided to stop here and move on to my next option.

four color ink drawing of people dressed in old fashioned clothing battling with cats and dogs and rain falling from the sky
“Very unpleasant weather”, an etching by George Cruikshank, 1820. (Public domain, via the National Gallery of Art. Full Disclosure: I learned this image existed through the Library of Congress Everyday Matters website.)

Theory #5: The phrase was coined by an English speaker who misheard an obscure French word for waterfall, catadoupe

Next up in Hendrickson’s entry was the conjecture that the phrase “raining cats and dogs” was coined by an English speaker who heard an obscure French word for waterfall, catadoupe, misunderstood the context for it, and decided that the person speaking to him was saying something about how it was raining cats and dogs outside. Since Google Translate was open anyway, I asked it to pronounce catadoupe for me.

Google Translate actually identified it as Portuguese, which made me chuckle. (In Hendrickson’s defense, however, it wasn’t hard to find another online foreign language dictionary that identified catadupe as an alternative French word for waterfall.)

Regardless, whether you ask Google Translate to pronounce catadoupe with a French or Portuguese accent, it’s clearly similar to cat et dupe, I mean, dog. I can see why someone might posit this as the origin story.

Our friend the Library of Congress has a slightly different take on this theory. They identify it as an Old English word catadupe, which may have been based on the Latin catadupa, which was borrowed from the classical Greek κατάδουποι (katádoupoi), which, our trusted friend the Library of Congress assures me, referred to the cataracts of the Nile River.  

So maybe “raining cats and dogs” is based on the Greek after all.

Still, when all is said and done, we’re talking about a phrase based on someone trying to say “it’s raining waterfalls” but committing a malapropism instead.  

Theory #6: The phrase raining cats and dogs is based on Norse mythology

The final origin story is just a throwaway line by Hendrickson, but I decided it was worth a look nonetheless. Apparently in Norse mythology, Odin the storm god regularly appears in images as being attended by dogs. Despite this association, the Norse typically blamed cats for storms. A comprehensively minded English speaker might well have concluded from this that to be safe, she’d better include both species in her storm description. Hence the origin of the phrase “raining cats and dogs.” 

When I consulted the Library of Congress for their opinion on this theory, they agreed with the bit about Odin and the dogs being associated with the wind, but asserted that witches, and their feline familiars, were the ones associated with heavy rain. Apparently sailors used to think that witches liked nothing better than to saddle up their brooms and take their cats for a flight during intense rainstorms.

Orange cat on a quilt pauses in the midst of grooming his paw. He looks pretty alarmed.
“You’re not going to make me do that, are you?” (Photo: Shala Howell)

Anyway, according to this theory, Northern sailors might well have used the phrase “raining cats and dogs” to describe a storm with high winds and heavy rain.

That left one last speculation: my brother’s tale about the thatched roofs.

Theory #7: The phrase “raining cats and dogs” refers to the unfortunate tendency of cats and dogs to fall through thatch roofs during heavy rain storms

Sorry, Paul. The Library of Congress says this last one’s just not true.  

So what do I think (for now at least)? 

I love a good literary reference. I am also quite attached to the idea that writers can become popular enough to literally change the way people think and talk about the world around them. I choose to believe that Jonathan Swift was instrumental in giving us this particular idiom.

Ironically, that means I didn’t pick any of the theories in Hendrickson’s entry on the subject, even though I had tried to save time by turning to him first. Some shortcut that turned out to be.

Interestingly, Hendrickson closes his entry with a reference to his book’s entry on Fishfall, which is just a deeply satisfying circular conclusion to this entire enterprise (which you’ll recall, began with me taking a second look at what people think causes the annual fish rain in Honduras), even if his entry on fishfall doesn’t mention Yoro, Honduras and its annual rain of fish at all. Hendrickson sticks strictly to fish- and frog falls that can be explained by waterspouts

Related links:

Other resources used in researching this post:

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