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I was wondering about the phrase it's raining cats and dogs; I've heard two versions of the meaning of the phrase and I was wondering which one was correct or wrong altogether.

The first: with 16th century European peasant homes frequently being thatched, animals seeking shelter from the elements would fall out during heavy rains.

The second: that drainage in 17th century Europe was typically poor so they would, during heavy rains, disgorge any of the animal corpses that had accumulated in them.

  • 2
    And is it related to "hailing taxis and buses"? – Malvolio Feb 27 '11 at 1:29
  • Somewhat apropos of your question, you might find it interesting to know that history has recorded cases of animals literally raining down from the heavens, numerous times -- animals much smaller than cats and dogs, mind you, usually frogs, but still the Wikipedia article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raining_animals makes for some interesting reading... – Uticensis Feb 27 '11 at 1:32
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    This is a MUCH better answer / explanation than I could write ... loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/rainingcats.html ... kind regards, SM – user70820 Apr 2 '14 at 13:11
  • Duh! I thought everyone knew -- it comes from one day when William Shakespeare walked into a printing house from out of a rainstorm. The proprietor, a Mr Daughs, was busy at his noisy press and likely could not hear the rain due to that noise. So Shakey shouted "It's raining, Katzen Daughs." – Hot Licks Apr 5 at 1:26
  • (Seriously, it's not too improbable that the phrase comes from, say, German, and "cats and dogs" is what the German sounds like to an (old) English-speaking ear. It might be worthwhile to search for analogous phrases in German, Dutch, etc.) – Hot Licks Apr 5 at 11:45
9

There are a few theories, that's for sure. But the bottom line is, the etymology is unknown. I won't leave you without these pointers, though:

  • The Phrase Finder:

    This is an interesting phrase in that, although there's no definitive origin, there is a likely derivation. [...] The fact that [Jonathan] Swift had alluded to the streets flowing with dead cats and dogs some years earlier and [in 1738] used 'rain cats and dogs' explicitly is good evidence that poor sanitation was the source of the phrase as we now use it.

  • Wikipedia:

    The English idiom "it is raining cats and dogs", used to describe an especially heavy rain, is of unknown etymology [...] There may not be a logical explanation; the phrase may have been used just for its nonsensical humor value[.]

  • Eric Partridge corroborates The Phrase Finder in this regard. – Robusto Feb 26 '11 at 20:43
7

I don't know the etymology, but it seems no-one else does. However, I have located the phrase Rains Dogs and Cats in 1678.

It occurs in Maronides, or, Virgil travesty : being a new paraphrase in burlesque verse, upon the fifth and sixth book of Virgil's Æneids by John Phillips

Under the branches, wot ye well,
When it rains Dogs and Cats in Hell,
The shelter'd Centaurs roar and yell;
Mounted on monkeys, with their tayls
As closely shav'd as back of nayls.
2

Phrase to rain cats and dogs is attested from 1738 (variation rain dogs and polecats is from 1652), of unknown origin, despite intense speculation.

[Reference: Etymonline.com]

Some other theories:

  • The archaic French catdoupe is a waterfall or cataract, lightning and thunder sounds like that of a cat/dog fight, cats had a big influence on the weather, and the sky dog Odin was attended to by wolves according to Norse Mythology.
  • Another theory is that in old England, they had hay roofs on their houses and the cats and dogs would sleep on the roof. When it rained, the roofs got slippery and the cats and dogs would slide off of the roofs. There for it was "Raining Cats and Dogs".
  • "Rain Cats and Dogs" stems from the Norse Mythology. Cats were believed to represent the wind and dogs represented rain. Different animals represented different weather and natural phenomenon.
  • OK, there's no way a dog is going to sleep on a roof. Just not happening. Dogs are den-makers and if a dog can't dig one, it'll find a secure, covered area (like under a porch). A cat might sleep on a roof, if it's sunny, but it would come down at the first drop of rain. The other two, mythologically-based theories strike me as equally implausible, but I can't prove it. – Malvolio Feb 27 '11 at 1:34
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    For those not familiar with English, it should be noted that a 'polecat' is not a cat, it's a type of weasel or skunk. – oosterwal Feb 27 '11 at 1:37
  • Polecat en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ilder.jpg – Dr. belisarius Feb 27 '11 at 9:00
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    Actually, a polecat is one of few wild species of ferrets, but they belong to the "lontra" animal group along with otters, weasles, and a few others. – user59509 Dec 11 '13 at 21:05
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    @Malvolio Mr. Charles M. Schultz would like a word with you. – user867 Jul 4 '14 at 4:04
1

In early America, pioneers were going west in covered wagons, but they had to build their own shelters when they first arrived in the West. At first, there were neither lumber mills to furnish building materials, nor (in many places) logs to build log cabins. So, shelters were build into the earth, as a one room "home" where all slept at night. The small rooms were covered by a few tree branches covered with straw. The pets, cats and dogs, slept in the flat straw roofs, through which they slipped through into the room below,, when it rained long and heavily. So it was "raining cats and dogs".

I was told this by my great grandfather, who experienced this personally.

  • I like this answer , but it seems that it is not factual , as the other answers indicate. – Prem Apr 20 '15 at 16:47
1

Christine Ammer, It's Raining Cats and Dogs... and Other Beastly Expressions (1989) dedicates a rather modest two paragraphs to a discussion of the possible origins of the expression:

The British origin of this expression for a heavy downpour makes perfectly good sense, given that the country's notorious reputation fro rainfall. Two centuries before Shaw composed his concluding refrain to an Irish song ["At last I went to Ireland,/ 'Twas raining cats and dogs:/ I found no music in the glens/ Nor purple in the bogs." 1931], Jonathan Swift had written "I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs" (1738), using a term that was already a cliche.

The expression's origin is cloudy. One writer says it comes North European myth, where cats supposedly have great influence on weather and the dog is a symbol of wind; hence the cat denotes heavy rain and the dog strong wind gusts. Another suggests the analogy of a raging storm to the hubbub of a cat-and-dog fight. Perhaps a more literal meaning is the true source. In 17th-century Britain, after a cloudburst, the gutters would overflow with a filthy torrent that included dead animals, along with sewage and other debris. Whatever the source the phrase called up an image picturesque enough to persist and be passed down to the present.

Inspired by Phil M Jones's find of an instance of "rains Dogs and Cats" from 1678, I searched for "Dogs and Cats" (and "Cats and Dogs") in a database of pre-1700 English books—and found two even earlier instances of the expression in the same "dogs and cats" order. From Thomas Flatman & John Phillips, Don Juan Lamberto: or, a comical history of the late times, part 2, chapter 4 (1661):

Now you must understand that after the Knight of the Golden Tulip was retaken through the great Courage of the Knight of the Bath, he was secured in the Castle of the Lyons, and eke the Knight of the Mysterious Allegories was there secured also, so that they had often opportunities to discourse together. Now when they saw each they congratulated one another right lovingly; Quoth Sr. Vane I am right glad to see you Sr. Lambert, though not so glad to see you here, however it is better to be here than in the open Fields, where there is no shelter against the Rain, nor any other kind of storm that should happen, for here we have Houses over our heads, so that if it should rain Dogs and Cats we could have no harm. And by the Masse quoth Sr. Lambert you speak right cunningly Sr. Vane; And besides this we do not fear to have our Corns trod upon by the Horses of the enraged Charrioters, nor are we in danger to be bruised by those sturdy Gyants ycleped Carrmen, nor need we fear to have our mantles snatch'd from us going late in the direul plain of Lincolns-Inna; however Liberty is worth its weight in pure Gold.

And from Maurice Atkins, Cataplus, or, Aeneas, his descent to hell a mock poem in imitation of the sixth book of Virgil's Aeneas, in English burlesque, page 19 (1672):

Where e're I went on Land or water

Hee'd make a shift to follow after.

Neither had he flincht a foot, had fates

Made it rain down dogs and cats;

Though old was body and decrepit,

Yet heart was whole and nought could break it.

It is quite striking that John Phillips, the person credited with the 1678 instance that Phil M Jones's answer cites was the coauthor of the work from 17 years earlier, where "rain Dogs and Cats" also appears. It is almost as surprising that the second occurrence of the phrase appears in a mock poem imitating the sixth book of the Aeneid—and that six years later the second Phillips match for "rains Dogs and Cats" is a burlesque imitation of the fifth and sixth books of the Aeneid.

As Mehper C. Palavuzlar's answer observes, there is an even earlier instance of raining dogs and polecats. The source is Richard Brome, The City Wit, act 4, scene 1, at line 1721 (first performed circa 1629–1631), published in Five new playes, (viz.) The madd couple well matcht. Novella. Court begger. City witt. Damoiselle (1653):

Sarpego. Where is your Mistresse? I mean your grand Matrona, Mrs. Sneakup.

Bridget. In the first place let me beseech you Sir,/ Vouchsafe your answer to a longing Maid,/ That can be comforted in nothing more,/ Then the good newes of your prosperity;/ Of which I hope a part at least to be,/ Preferr’d by your late promise to your service.

Sarpego. I will now breath a most strong and Poeticall execration/ Against the Universe.

Bridget. Sir, I beseech you ...

Sarpego. From henceforth Erit Fluvius Deucalionis the world shall flow with dunces; Regnabitque, and it shall raine/ Dogmata Polla Sophon, dogs and polecats, and so forth.

Bridget. His Court advancement makes him mad, I fear.

The joke here is that "Dogmata Polla Sophon" translates from Greek (according to Google Translate) as "Doctrines of Many Wise Men." It is only in the mouth of the character Sarpego that dogmata becomes "dogs," polla becomes "polecats," and sophon becomes "and so forth." Regnabitque, too, is reduced from something associated with the Latin word for kingdom to "rain."


Conclusions

At this point, I am aware of one instance (from circa 1629–1631) of raining dogs and polecats, three instances (from 1661, 1672 and 1678) of raining dogs and cats, and no instances before 1700 of raining cats and dogs. Those results provide some (but not much) circumstantial evidence that "raining dogs and cats" is older than "raining cats and dogs," and that "raining dogs and polecats"—reflecting a false-cognate-based nonsense translation of Greek and Latin phrases into English—may be the oldest of all. At the very least it provides evidence that people were writing about downpours of dogs and polecats by 1631 and of dogs and cats by 1661.

The earliest match for "rain dogs and cats" that I found, from Don Juan Lamberto (1661), involves one character telling another that since they are in a house, and not in the open fields, they are not subject to harm from "Rain, nor any other kind of storm"—including, specifically, a rain of dogs and cats. To my mind, this sounds like a literal falling from the sky of domesticated animals. It makes no sense to me to emphasize the "Houses over our heads" as keeping the two conversants from harm in such a storm if the expression ultimately refers to animals falling through roof thatching or floating dead in overflowing sewers.

It is possible, of course, that the expression "raining dogs and cats" was decades or centuries old when the authors of Don Juan Lamberto put it in their book. If so, the particular circumstances in which it appears there isn't especially helpful in revealing the original understanding of the expression. It is even possible that the jokey translation of "raining dogs and polecats" in The City Wit (1629–1631) is the original ancestor of "raining cats and dogs."

Nevertheless, I think it is quite plausible that the origin of the expression is no more odd and mysterious than someone looking out the door or window at a heavy downpour and saying, "It's raining so hard that I wouldn't be surprised if dogs and cats started coming down in it, too."

  • Have you tried looking for instances that included old or middle English spellings for "cat" and "dog: catt/e, catte, and hund? – Mari-Lou A Jul 7 '18 at 10:59
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    @Mari-LouA: I had not done so—but at your suggestion I have run multiple searches just now for these alternate spellings. I found a number of instances of "dogges and cattes"—as well as a few matches for "dogs and cattes," "doggs and cats," "houndes and cattes," etc.—dating back to 1482, but none of them involve involve rain. Most are literal, and the figurative uses tend to involve "agreinge like dogges and cattes" (that is, not agreeing at all). More and more it appears that Richard Brome's "it shall raine ... dogs and polecats" from 1629–1631 had no recorded precedent. – Sven Yargs Jul 7 '18 at 19:26
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Here is some pure speculation, Suppose an abandoned building was infested with feral cats. To put the building back into use the cats were collected and thrown out the windows onto the street below where, if they survived the fall, they were chased by dogs. At the same time it was raining. An unfortunate pedestrian would easily observe, "It's raining cats and dogs."

  • Where it has been raining cats and dogs, you'll often find poodles (puddles). – tautophile Jul 7 '18 at 1:18
  • @tautophile pure speculation, with no supporting evidence, should not be rewarded with an upvote, however fanciful or amusing they may be. – Mari-Lou A Jul 7 '18 at 10:29

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