“It’s Raining Cats and Dogs” – Phrase Origin
A common phrase used to describe heavy rain, you would be forgiven if you have questioned the origin of the phrase “It’s raining cats and dogs.” The sentence makes no logical sense. Cats and dogs have nothing to do with the rain, so where could this strange phrase have come from?
There is no known origin of the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs.” There are several theories about the phrase’s etymology, many of which have no evidence to support them. The most likely origin of the term is from a Jonathan Swift poem, “Description of a City Shower.”
Take a look at some of the most popular theories here and decide for yourself which one it seems most likely to derive from. There are plenty to choose from, from Norse gods to tumbling household pets.
How the Phrase “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs” Was Invented
There is no evidence of the phrase’s invention. Like most colloquial language, the term has likely been passed down through word of mouth for generations.
There is no way of knowing if this is an eggcorn—a phrase so often misheard that the new term retains the same meaning as the original, like “for all intensive purposes”—or simply an odd expression that nobody knows the origin of.
You can look to poetry to find the earliest recorded uses of this phrase, though it is impossible to tell how long the term had been in circulation before the poets began using it. All of these examples could have been origins of the term or variations of an undocumented but well-established term in the English language. This we will never know.
In his play, The City Wit, Richard Brome wrote that it was “raining dogs and polecats.” This could be an early version of the phrase that later became “it’s raining cats and dogs,” or it could be a variation on an already common term.
It could be that a 1651 Henry Vaughan poem inspired Brome to write the phrase. It described a roof as secure against “dogs and cats rained in shower.”
Another early recorded use of cats and dogs to describe rain is in the 1710 poem by Jonathan Swift, Description of a City Shower. In the poem, he writes the following:
“Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.”
If this is the origin of the phrase, it is somewhat unpleasant. It suggests that the rainwater was so strong that it swept up the household pets and sent their bodies down the street with the flood.
While Swift never indicates that this is related to the phrase, in his later work A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenous Conversation, he uses the entire term in its current form for the first time. He writes, “I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs,” and this was credited with the growth in popularity of the phrase henceforth.
However, this is not enough evidence to affirm that he was the first to use this phrase.
Theories on Where “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs” May Come From
But where could it have come from if the phrase didn’t originate with Swift? There have been several theories from both language experts and speculators that could be the original origin. While none of these have any proof, it is still fun to look at what may have been the beginning of the phrase.
Animals Falling From the Roof During Rainstorms
A widely accepted origin of this phrase suggests that heavy rain would cause small animals hiding in rooves to fall from them, leading to the association with rain and falling animals. There has been some doubt over this due to a lack of evidence to support small animals taking shelter in thatched rooves, as the theory suggests.
A more likely, grim variation of this theory suggests that dead animals would collect in the sewers over time. When heavy rainfall would occur, the sewers would flood, and the corpses of these animals would wash out into the street. This likely is what Swift was talking about in his poem.
It may seem nonsensical to witness animal corpses flowing through the streets and turn it into an idiom, but it’s not an impossible scenario if you consider the phrase might have originated in 17th-century England.
It May Have Derived From Other Languages
A few common phrases and words in foreign languages could have been misheard or mistranslated into English to form the expression. In French, the term “catadupe” can be translated to mean waterfall.
There is some suggestion that a French speaker may have used this phrase, which was passed down to sound like cats and dogs, like Chinese whispers. The fact is that catadupe ended up being part of Old English vocabulary. The same word could have been passed down from Old English and spread among poets in the 17th Century.
A few Greek phrases could have contributed to the term “raining cats and dogs.” Following on from the theme of waterfalls, the Greek word for the waterfalls of the River Nile was “catadupoi” and could have been passed down similarly to the French word.
Another Greek phrase, “cata doxa,” translates to “contrary to belief.” The theory is that it was raining so much you wouldn’t believe it, hence “raining cata doxa,” which became “raining cats and dogs.”
Cats and Dogs in Norse Mythology
Finally, this unsubstantiated but interesting theory is that the phrase “raining cats and dogs” derived from Norse Mythology.
The story goes that Odin, the god of war, could control the wind and used this to sweep dogs off the ground and through the air. This is speculated to have led to people associating flying dogs with rough weather.
While it seems unlikely that Norse Mythology would show up in 17th-century England, the phrase could have been passed down from the Viking invasions of the 9th Century, when many Scandinavians settled in the British Isles and stayed until the Norman invasion in the 11th Century.
The obvious flaw in this theory is the lack of cats. There are few ties to Odin with cats and not much more with dogs. The dogs this theory references may well be wolves, one of the animals associated with Odin. Overall, it is unlikely that this is the origin of the phrase, but it remains a fun theory.
Links to Witchcraft
Much like the Norse connections, Witchcraft is unlikely to have affected the phrase “raining cats and dogs,” but it is an interesting theory nonetheless. The idea stems from the fact that witches would often fly around on broomsticks with their familiars. These were often black cats.
This meant that, in theory, it could be a common occurrence for black cats to fall from the Witch’s broomsticks and out of the sky. This was unlikely for many reasons. The origin of Witches as we know them today, broomsticks and all, originated around the 15th Century. They were better known as regular women who lived alone with animals until much later. It also omits dogs entirely, as they had very little connection to Witches.
The origin of phrases can be complex to track, especially if they are derived from a time when most information was passed down through word of mouth.
It is impossible to know exactly where the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” came from. However, there is a considerable spike in use in 17th and 18th-century poetry. This means it was probably either founded or popularised around this time.
British idioms are often comedic and nonsensical. “It’s raining cats and dogs” is one of many phrases from British English that has never, and probably will never, make sense.
- History: Why Do Witches Ride Brooms?
- Bitesize: Who were the Vikings?
- Brittanica: Odin
- History Extra: Why Do We Say Raining Cats and Dogs
- Google Books: A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenous Conversation
- Poetry Foundation: A Description of a City Shower by Jonathan Swift
- DHI: Richard Brome Online
- Life With Dogs: It’s Raining Cats and Dogs?
- Langster: Commonly Misheard Phrases in English You Should Know About
- Phrases: The saying ‘raining cats and dogs’ – meaning and origin