Raining Cats And Dogs

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The idiom raining cats and dogs has been a common English expression since at least the 1800's.

Meaning of Raining Cats and Dogs

We say "it's raining cats and dogs" when there is a heavy downpour. It simply means "a heavy rain."

A synonym for raining buckets.

Usage

"Man, I'm soaked. It's raining cats and dogs out there."

"Sorry I'm late for work, it's raining cats and dogs and the streets are flooded."

Origin

We can only guess at the origin of this curious idiom. One possibility that is that the expression comes from the poorly built streets of England during the 1600's. When a heavy rain came, the streets were flooded by flowing sewage and trash. Any dogs and cats trapped in the muck could easily be killed. Hence, after a very bad rain, the corpses of cats and dogs were often found outside, looking as if they fell from the sky. Thus, the idiom was born.

A passage from Jonathan Swift's 1710 poem Description of a City Shower describes the scene:

Drowned Puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.

Richard Brome, and English playwright included a play on this idiom in his play, The City Wit, from 1652. In it, a character named Sarpego pretends to understand Latin and to translate it by ear saying1:

From henceforth Actual translation: Flowing like Deucalion’s flood. A flood from Greek mythology. Zeus brought heavy rain and flooded Greece and destroyed humans. Erit Fluvius Deucalionis

The world shall flow with dunces; Actual translation: And he will reignRegnabitque, and it shall rain

Actual translation: Many are the thoughts of the wise.Dogmata Polla Sophon, dogs and polecats, and so forth.

Another possibility is that the phrase comes from the blossoms of the willow tree which, in some parts of England, were called catkins, pussy cats, or cats and dogs by children. During the spring, when there were many rain showers, these blossoms would cover the ground, looking as if it had "rained cats and dogs."

A similar possibility is that the phrase is a corruption of the old French word catdoupe, meaning a waterfall or cataract.

There are many other colorful explanations. Similar to the first explanation, which is the most credible, it is suggested that vermin, cats, and dogs lived in the thatched roofs of dwellings. When it rained, these roofs became slippery and mice, dogs, cats would come tumbling down, looking as if they had fallen from the sky. Although it is quite plausible that mice, insects, and even the occasional cat would find shelter in thatched roofs, the idea that dogs would live there is ludicrous.

David Milton, in Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, seems to favor a more prosaic explanation. Making much of the traditional 'strife' between cats and dogs, he suggests that a heavy rain shower sounds like cats and dogs fighting, thus the expression.

The Library of Congress suggests a few other possibilities, such as Norse mythology and Greek expression cata doxa or "cats and dogs" which to the Greeks, meant “contrary to experience or belief" suggesting that the "raining cats and dogs" means it is raining extraordinarily hard.

Sources
1. Ammer, Christine. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

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