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.
Featured Image Credit: ‘Dog, Cat, Animals, Friend’, Photo by jarmoluk, CC0 Public Domain, via pixabay.
I had a high school English teacher who told us that the phrase originated from the idea that cats and even small dogs would climb up into thatched roofs to sleep, and when heavy rains would come, they would not be able to hold on to the wet thatch and would fall to the ground.
Seems at least as unlikely as some of your candidates above!
That theory is, I believe, taken from the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. I’d be curious what Mr. Lieberman thinks of it.
My mom said when people use the word its raining “Cats and Dogs” it means its raining really hard and Raining “Cats and Dogs” is a Idiom for Its raining really hard.
Is that true or is it just a cover up for secret spy work going on.
my brother went to collage and told me that back in the day cats took over the world and then the dogs got them back.
You may wish to view;
This saying is attributed to the Canadian author Thomas Chandler Haliburton (pre 1865). Mr. Lieberman you have not done your homework!
Speers, you have messed up. Liberman’s article quotes the OED’s earliest attestation, which is Jonathan Swift’s from 1738. You can find it for yourself, in “A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation,” published in 1738 (a searchable facsimile is available on Google Books.)
Haliburton was not born until 1796.
Objections can be raised against your conclusion, even though Toke’s hypothesis is indeed one possible explanation. The weak point clearly is that, apart from De Morgan’s childhood memory (“the whole phrase […] was [originally] ‘cats and dogs, and pitchforks with their points downwards'”, De Morgan 1861: 380) which could be based on a regional or intrafamilial idiosyncrasy, evidence for a fuller original version of the idiom has yet to be found. Furthermore, there are other quite reasonable attempts at an explanation which you discount.
G. Harvey’s “dogboltes or catboltes” could also be a word play on an older idiom. In “A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable”, B. A. Phythian refers to a text from 1549 which is implying just that. After having dismissed the “heavy shower” hypothesis, Phythian writes:
“A better explanation, or at least a clue, is to be found in a quotation from Chaloner’s translation of Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly (1549): ‘Rather should we let all the world go to wreck both with dog and cat (as they say)’. This indicates that there existed a popular expression ‘with dog and cat’, that it was used of a disaster, and that it meant ‘completely and utterly’, down on the last dog and cat […].” (1993: 264)
Chaloner’s 1549 translation of Erasmus’ “In Praise of Folie” indeed contains this sentence: “Or rather shoulde we let all the worlde goe to wreke both with dogge and catte (as they saie) than ones to make a lesyng, be the mattier neuer so lyght” (Erasmus 1965: 79). With dogge and catte is not a direct translation from Latin. The original speaks of “cum uictu et uestitu, quod aiunt” (Erasmus 1829: 362), which would translate to ‘food and clothing, as they say’ – ‘as they say’, so this is presumable some kind of idiomatic phrase; and in search of an adequate translation, Chaloner came up with dogge and catte. And the most probable reason for this is that there really used to be a “popular expression ‘with dog and cat’, […] and that it meant ‘completely and utterly'” (Phythian 1993: 264). A heavy rain could have evoked the biblical story from the book of Genesis, in which God sends a great deluge from the sky to destroy the world and it would have gone down with dog and cat if it would not have been for the righteous Noah and his ark. It is raining cats and dogs might thus have been motivated by the idea that ‘it is raining as if it was the end of the world’.
This approach seeems to be even more plausible and convincing to me than the one offered by N. E. Toke.
De Morgan, A. 1861. “Raining Cats and Dogs.” Notes and Queries. Series 2. Vol. XII. London: Bell & Daldy. 380381.
Erasmus, Desiderius. 1829. Colloquia Familiaria, et Encomium Moriae. Editio Stereotypa. Lipsiae [Leipzig]: C. Tauchnitii.
Phythian, B. A. 1993. A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. London: Hodder Education.
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