This is an old chestnut. How can an apparently meaningless idiom come into being and stay in the language? The possibilities are few. A foreign phrase is occasionally repeated verbatim or nearly so and turns into gibberish. For example, Chaucer used the idiom to be at sixes and sevens “in a state of great disorder” in the form set on six and seven. Its source is the English-French hybrid set on cinque and sice, that is, on the highest numbers in a game of dice, figuratively “to risk everything, not to care about the results of one’s actions.” The plurals in it go back to the 17th century. Secondly, the words in an idiom may have changed their meanings. For example, it is possible that cat and dog in raining cats and dogs were not animal names when the phrase was coined. Finally, an idiom may stem from some forgotten fact, superstition, or custom.
Everybody who is interested in matters etymological has experienced the disappointment of being told “origin unknown.” What is true of the undocumented history of words is doubly true of proverbial sayings and idioms. I remember my surprise when I discovered that the phrase to sow one’s wild oats does not go back to the Bible and that its source has not been found. There is another difficulty. The OED is reticent when it comes to the origin of idioms (because this dictionary’s conclusions are based on facts, rather than wild conjectures), whereas books meant for the so-called lay reader supply fanciful information with generosity worthy of a better cause. No references are given, and doubts are expressed but rarely. The authors copy from one another and thereby create a semblance of solidity and consensus. Try to Google “it rains cats and dogs—etymology” (highly instructive reading).
A case in point is the “theory,” according to which the source of it is raining cats and dogs is Nordic. Allegedly, in Norse mythology cats were supposed to have great influence on the weather, while dogs were a signal of the wind; or cats were a symbol of heavy rain (whatever symbol means here), while the dog, an attendant of Odin, the storm god, represented great blasts of wind; or witches in the guise of cats rode upon the storm and followed Odin and his dog. A theory indeed. In Norse mythology, Odin is not a storm god, his “animals” are a horse and two ravens, cats have nothing to do with either Odin or witches, and rain is not connected with any divinity. Odin presides over the Wild Hunt in late Scandinavian folklore, not mythology. The Wild Hunt, which is known in most of northern Europe, is obviously associated with stormy weather, but Odin’s following is made up of flying corpses, not of cats, dogs, or witches. Under no circumstances can the English idiom be traced to any scene in Scandinavian oral tradition.
The idea that it is raining cats and dogs is an alteration (“corruption,” as people preferred to say in the 19th century) of some foreign phrase has occurred to many. The Greek phrase kata doksa, approximately, “contrary to expectation” (compare Engl. cataclysm, and orthodoxy) seemed especially worthy of note because even in Modern Greek one sometimes uses it in describing a downpour, and the same phrase has reportedly been heard from Gypsies (in what country?). But in Greek (assuming the information is reliable), kata doksa can be applied to any phenomenon that is unexpected. Before we go on, an additional point should be made. When borrowing is suggested, reference to a similar-sounding word or phrase in a foreign language is not enough, for the ways of reaching a new home have to be traced. How did Greek kata doksa make its way into English? Did the English phrase originate among university wits (not an uncommon situation), or did it have popular origins? Unless evidence exists that it is raining cats and dogs first had some popularity at Oxford or Cambridge, the Greek hypothesis, not unlike the cats and dogs themselves, falls to the ground. So let us forget kata doksa. Another Greek etymology derived cats and dogs from Katadoupoi, the name of the great cataracts on the Nile (perhaps via French). Mr. Dick, a friend of David Copperfield, never succeeded in explaining how the thoughts from the severed head of King Charles I got into his poor head. Reasoning along the same lines, I would like to be told how the Greek cataracts were transferred from the Nile, directly or via France, to the foggy skies of England and what has happened to the dogs (or is doupoi the last remnant of the canine pack?).
Someone wrote in 1919: “I think I have heard somewhere that this phrase is a corruption of tempo cattivo (bad weather) and that it was introduced into England by Nelson’s sailors who had served in Italian waters”—this came a few years before the completion of the OED. Frightened by tempo cattivo, dogs have again disappeared from the streets. (“‘Cat-and-dog weather.’ I consider that these sayings have more to do with the cat than with the dog. Cattivo tempo…is bad weather, and cat weather is probably a bad pun derived from cattivo. The dog has been, we may presume, introduced by some genius who, having read or heard of the ‘warring elements’, deemed the dog a fitting companion for pussy!’’–an 1870 “theory.” Here is another variant of the cat-and dog-weather derivation, bypassing the epithet cattivo: “[T]he elements of nature in their disarray fly at each other as if a cat and dogs met at a barn door.”). Fortunately, Italians also say freddo e vento e acqua a catinelle “cold and wind, and water in basins” (a common image: raining in buckets). Are we getting there? Sure, but the same fateful question: Where are the dogs? Perhaps if one can say acqua a catinelle, one can also say a catinelle e dogli… (dogli is the plural of doglio “large jar; barrel”). The author of that hypothesis admits that he never heard such a phrase, but why not presume?
We are now ready to make a trip to the Netherlands. It will be a great trip and it calls for a limerick: “The scholar John Bellenden Ker/ Had a fondness for Dutchness. /In slut and in duchess/ Roots from Holland he could disinter./ Such hypotheses often oc-Ker.” A poor, inelegant limerick, but its hero does not deserve a better one. John Bellenden Ker (I continue in prose) produced the funniest book (two volumes) ever written on questions of etymology. He looked on hundreds of English words and proverbial sayings as “corruptions” of something existing in Dutch (Ker’s Dutch is as funny as the content of his work). His explanation must be quoted in full: “IT RAINS CATS AND DOGS. That is, the rain is violent and drives to the face. ‘Et reyn’s ketse aen d’oogs; q. e. this is a proper current in the eyes; it is a thorough drive upon the eyes; it is as if its only object was our eyes; how properly it besets one’s eyes! The phrase is evidently jocular in both travesty and original; and evidently spoken by one who had been peppered by some driving storm of rain. ‘Et, het, this, it. Reyn, pure, unmixed, proper, sheer. ‘S, is, is. Ketse, as the participle present of ketsen, kitsen, to chase, to drive on after, to pursue, to hunt. D’oogs, de oogs, the eyes.” Etymology has always attracted lunatics (some of whom happened to be medical doctors). A similar recent Hebrew derivation of the English phrase also exists, but I will spare the readers the details.
Back to England. “Raining Cats and Dogs.”–During a heavy, but genial shower toward the end of this March [this was published in early April, 1857], and old stone-breaker said to me: “This is the rain, Sir, to make the cats and dogs grow!” pointing as he spoke to the hedge-side willows, which were covered with the bursting catkins, which are called by some people ‘cats and dogs,’ and which were used on Palm Sunday to represent the branches of palm. Does this throw any light on the singular saying which heads this note?” The question was asked by one of “unsung heroes of etymology.” His name is Cuthbert Bede. He was a man of great erudition and rare common sense, but, clearly, his guess does not go far enough.
We are finally moving from the realm of linguistic games to real life. “Has the expression an origin with cats and dogs pattering across a bare boarded floor, strangely resembling the sound of a heavy downpour of rain?” I am afraid it does not. Thomas Boys, another prolific and resourceful “unsung hero,” referred to Jonathan’s Swift’s description of a heavy shower in London: “Drown’d puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,/Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.” Boys suggested (1857) that, while viewing the trophies of the rain, people must have believed that it had “rained cats and dogs.” Clever, but far-fetched. Swift did know the phrase. The OED quotes him as saying “…it would rain cats and dogs” (1738), and this is the earliest literary attestation of the idiom in the dictionary, but the idea of Swift’s coining it is most unlikely.
I think that the only clue to the origin of the idiom was furnished by N. E. Toke (Notes and Queries, 12th Series, vol. 4, 1918, pp. 328-329). He paid attention to a 1592 sentence from the OED (under cat 17): “Instead of thunderboltes shooteth nothing but dogboltes or catboltes” (G. Harvey). By the end of the 16th century, our phrase (in some form at least) must have been known. Toke adds: “…‘dogbolts’ and ‘catbolts’ are terms still employed in provincial dialect to denote, respectively, the iron bolts for securing a door or gate, and the bolts for fastening together pieces of timber.” If Harvey’s catbolts and dogbolts are not a pun on thunderbolts, one can imagine that people compared a shower (or better a hailstorm) to heavy instruments falling on their heads from the sky, with thunderbolt supplying a convenient model for the other two words. Characteristically, the fuller version of the idiom is raining cats and dogs and pitchforks (with their points downwards). Evidently, cats and dogs were thought to belong with sharp instruments rather than animals. If there is any truth in this reconstruction, the idiom sounded raining catbolts, dogbolts, and pitchforks; the second element -bolts was later left out, perhaps because the whole came out too bulky or as a joke (whose humor soon became incomprehensible).
Why didn’t I begin at the end and waste so much space on mocking silly guesses? The answer is obvious: to clear the table before serving dessert. Walter W. Skeat once said: “Many suggestions I have adopted. Others I have decisively rejected; but I trust it will be readily understood that my decisiveness is due to no discourtesy, but simply to an earnest zeal for the prevention of the dissemination of errors” (1880). I was motivated by the same zeal, equally courteous and earnest.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”