Q&A: Why do we say “it’s raining cats and dogs”?

Why do we say it's raining cats and dogs?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have a pet project…

Q: Hey AWC, all this rain lately has me cleaning up a lot of mould. Wait, or is it mold?

A: We’ve covered that one already in this chat. Spoilers – It’s “mould” for all uses of the word here in Australia.

Q: Okay, thanks. It really has been raining cats and dogs lately…

A: Why? Do you live below a neglectful animal shelter?

Q: Haha, no, the saying “raining cats and—”… Actually, come to think of it, why DO we say that it’s raining domestic pets when there is a large downpour?

A: Great question! Any guesses?

Q: I saw a movie with Tom Cruise in it once, where it rained frogs. Something to do with that?

A: Ah, that movie was Magnolia – and that is actually a very rare yet real weather phenomenon caused by a vortex or waterspout sucking up light creatures such as frogs and “raining” them down at another location. Here’s an article about it happening in Canada.

Q: Nothing about cats and dogs though?

A: Nope. The phrase has a few theories, but is likely to have originated during the 16th or 17th centuries. During this time, poor households were said to have kept domestic animals inside with them up in the rafters. A heavy downpour would see the thatched roof cave in and tumbling down would come the animals!

Q: Wow, so that’s extremely literal.

A: A more common theory was the fact that due to poor drainage, drowned cats and dogs would wash into the streets after a storm – giving the effect that they too had come from the heavens.

Q: Heavens!

A: Yes, the sky. The first time we see it written in some form in print is during the 1650s, with two references – one that talked about a roof being secure against “dogs and cats rained in shower”, while the other – by playwright Richard Brome – stated that “it shall rain dogs and polecats”.

Q: What’s a polecat? A scantily clad cat that dances in a club for dollar bills?

A: No, it’s more like a type of weasel. They were common back then.

Q: My aunt Muriel tried to be a Pole dancer. She flew to Warsaw and applied for citizenship and everything. 

A: Um okay. Anyway, in 1738, famous writer Jonathan Swift flipped the animals to their modern-day order, writing “it will “rain cats and dogs” – and it’s been raining that way ever since.

Q: Any other theories?

A: Plenty actually! Such as Norse mythology, where Odin, the god of storms was often pictured with dogs that symbolised the wind. Meanwhile, witches with black cats flew their brooms in storms, and this came to be known as a symbol for heavy rain.

Q: Brooms like in quidditch?

A: Yes, well done – five points for Hufflepuff. Other theories play on the similarity of the sound of the term “cats and dogs” – such as the Greek expression “cata doxa” which means “contrary to experience or belief.” So, if it’s raining “cats and dogs”/cata doxa, it’s raining “contrary to belief” – or unusually heavily!

Q: That seems like a retrofit theory if ever I saw one. 

A: It’s a long bow, that’s for sure, but the Greeks WERE good archers. Another “sounds like” theory relates to the now obsolete word catadupe” – which once meant “waterfall” – as having similarity to “cats and dogs”.

Q: I think as much as I don’t like to see dead waterlogged animals lying in the streets, that probably seems the most likely theory.

A: One final suggestion according to the Online Etymology Dictionary is that since the 1570s, “cats and dogs” had been used proverbially to describe “strife or enmity”. 

Q: Shakespeare does talk about “the dogs of war” in his play, Julius Caesar

A: Exactly! 

Q: And we know how much of a disaster that 2019 film Cats was…

A: Haha, true. So, perhaps a rainstorm and its associated strife (remember that this was in the days before watertight buildings and good sewer systems) was equated to these “cats and dogs” of strife or trouble.

Q: So there were no theories about Japanese car makers losing their factory parts in a storm?

A: Um, not that we know of…

Q: Oh wait, I’m thinking of “it’s raining Datsun cogs” – never mind.

A: Groooaaan.

Q: Well after all that, I’m dog-tired and may need to take a cat-nap.

A: Fair enough. “Dog-tired” by the way, originated in 1806, simply relating to being as tired as a dog after a long chase. Meanwhile, “cat-nap” as a short or light sleep dates back to 1823.

Q: It’s funny, because my dog never seems to get tired, while my cat doesn’t take cat naps – she sleeps all day. 

A: Cats and dogs – long may they reign… and rain!

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