Raining Cats and Dogs

Continuing with the cat theme…

Raining Cats and Dogs.

Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 1937, defines the term as meaning a hard rain, and credits it to Jonathan Swift, who in 1710 wrote a poem called “A Description of A City Shower”, which includes the following lines:

‘Sweeping from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts and blood;
Drown’d puppies, stinking sprats, all drench’d with mud,
Dead cats, and turnip-tops, come tumbling down the flood.’

Swift is also credited, some thirty years later, with the book in which ‘raining cats and dogs’ appears for the first time.

The streets of London, in Swift’s time, were filthy repositories for every imaginable kind of waste, including dead animals. The sight of critter corpses floating by after a heavy rain might well have led to the coining of the phrase. Similar, if not worse, conditions existed at the same time in Edinburgh. Only torrential downpours washed out the open sewers. ‘Nastiness’ was an old Scots term for the effluvium that collected therein.

There is another common theory that cats and dogs (and all other manner of animal and insect life) once burrowed in thatched roofs for shelter and warmth, and therefore when the rains came the poor creatures would get washed/fall out of the thatch, or abandon it for better shelter, with the result that it would seem to be raining cats and dogs.

Am I the only one to wonder how dogs got up on the roofs in the first place? I also came across references to raining like pitchforks, hammer handles, and chicken coops.

In 1653 Richard Brome modified the phrase to ‘dogs and polecats’.

I’m choosing to ignore the various mythological theories for the origin of the phrase; they stretch my credulity too far.

Also according to Mr. Partridge:

A ‘cat’ was a harlot. ‘Caterwaul’ means to make sexual love.
A catgut-scraper was a fiddler.
Living under the cat’s foot meant to be hen-pecked.
Cat-sticks were thin legs.
A flying-cat was an owl.
Cat’s water was gin.

And ‘enough to make a cat speak and a wise man dumb’ meant astonishing.

Published in: on May 24, 2008 at 10:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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