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an animation of a lightning storm
figure 1  

 

raining cats and dogs. When it rains like this, it’s really, really coming down.

This is one of those doggie expressions whose origin is much discussed, much disputed, and whose true original usage is probably lost in the haze of time. Jonathan Swift often gets credit for the first use of this term in print in Polite Conversation, written circa 1708 and published thirty years later. Since the book is a satire on the use of clichés, it seems unlikely that this is the first actual usage.reference 1

In her book, It's Raining Cats and Dogs and Other Beastly Expressions, Christine Ammer speculates that the expression's origins are in Northern European myths in which the cat stood for rain and the dog for wind.

This one idea of hers really caught my attention: “In 17th century Britain, after a cloudburst the gutters would overflow with a filthy torrent that included dead animals....”reference 2

an animation of a lightning storm
figure 2  

Maybe it's just that such storms are as noisy as cats and dogs fighting: the wailing of the wind, the barking of the thunder, and so on.

Wilton's challenges these ideas however, citing a citation by Rawson of a similar phrase “rain dogs and polecats,” from Richard Brome's The City Witt of 1652. Because polecats are not felines, but some other kind of mammal, Wilton's thinks that none of these could possibly be true.

Wilton's also includes a suggestion—refuted by others—that the origin is from the archaic French catdoupe, meaning waterfall or cataract.reference 3

This seems to be one of those common metaphors with a thousand paternity claims, but no certain father. However, there are known false origins. Jan Freeman who does The Word column for The Boston Globe declares that the claim “that raining cats and dogs derives from the animals’ thatched-roof refuge” is a hoax.reference 4

1. Wilton, David. 2001. Wilton's Word & Phrase Origins. wordorigins.org. Accessed Oct 25 2001 from http://www.wordorigins.org/.

 

2. Ammer, Christine. 1989. It's Raining Cats and Dogs—and Other Beastly Expressions. New York: Paragon House.

 

 

 

 

3. Wilton.

4. Freeman, Jan. 2008. The Word Blog. Boston Globe, Jul 29. Accessed Aug 23 2009 from http:// www.boston.com/ bostonglobe/ideas/ theword/ 2008/07/ no_seriously_--_dont_tell_me.html and Life in the 1500's. 2009. Piffe the Puffin. M. Poulin, ed. Accessed Aug 23 2009 from http:// www.naute.com/ stories/ 1500s.phtml.

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About the illustrations: Figure 1: A thunderstorm such as this was often accompanied by heavy rains when I was a child in upstate New York. This animation is posted on bestanimations.com and considered free to use.

Figure 2 is a more literal rendering of the idea of it raining cats and dogs. By Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel). I am not sure what text it is from. © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation.

see also: fight like cats and dogs; cats and dogs (business)

Last updated: August 23, 2009
by Alec MacLeod 2001-2008  Dogmatic Technologies Oakland Creative Commons unless otherwise expressly stated, all original material of whatever nature created by Alec MacLeod and included in The Canine in Conversation and any related pages, is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Please read the Terms of Use Agreement by Alec MacLeod Dogmatic Technologies