The first recorded use of a phrase similar to “raining cats and dogs” was in the 1651 collection of poems Olor Iscanus. British poet Henry Vaughan referred to a roof that was secure against “dogs and cats rained in shower.” One year later, Richard Brome, an English playwright, wrote in his comedy City Witt, “It shall rain dogs and polecats.” (Polecats are related to the weasel and were common in Great Britain through the end of the nineteenth century.)
In 1738, Jonathan Swift published his “Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation,” a satire on the conversations of the upper classes. One of his characters fears that it will “rain cats and dogs.” Whether Swift coined the phrase or was using a cliché, his satire was likely the beginning of the phrase’s popularity. Other British writers have employed less popular phrases, such as “it’s raining pitchforks” or “it’s raining stair-rods,” to describe the shaft-like appearance of heavy rains. But Swift’s phrase may have been memorable enough to stick in the mind of the public.
Swift also wrote a poem, “City Shower” (1710), that described floods that occurred after heavy rains. The floods left dead animals in the streets, and may have led locals to describe the weather as “raining cats and dogs.”
Why “cats and dogs”?
Again, we don’t know for certain. Etymologists—people who study the origins of words—have suggested a variety of mythological and literal explanations for why people say “it’s raining cats and dogs” to describe a heavy downpour. Here are some of the popular theories:
- Odin, the Norse god of storms, was often pictured with dogs and wolves, which were symbols of wind. Witches, who supposedly rode their brooms during storms, were often pictured with black cats, which became signs of heavy rain for sailors. Therefore, “raining cats and dogs” may refer to a storm with wind (dogs) and heavy rain (cats).
- “Cats and dogs” may come from the Greek expression cata doxa, which means “contrary to experience or belief.” If it is raining cats and dogs, it is raining unusually or unbelievably hard.
- “Cats and dogs” may be a perversion of the now obsolete word catadupe. In old English, catadupe meant a cataract or waterfall. A version of catadupe existed in many old languages.In Latin, for example, catadupa was borrowed from the classical Greek κατάδουποι, which referred to the cataracts of the Nile River. So, to say it’s raining “cats and dogs” might be to say it’s raining waterfalls.
- A false theory stated that cats and dogs used to cuddle into thatch roofs during storms and then be washed out during heavy rains. However, a properly maintained thatch roof is naturally water resistant and slanted to allow water to run off. In order to slip off the roof, the animals would have to be lying on the outside—an unlikely place for an animal to seek shelter during a storm.
- Online Etymology Dictionary -A free online dictionary of word origins.
- Wordorigins.org -
See the link to the Big List for 400 words and phrases with interesting etymological histories.
- World Wide Words - “The English language is forever changing: World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.
- Ammer, Christine. Cool cats, top dogs, and other beastly expressions. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, c1999. 266 p.
- Brewer’s dictionary of phrase and fable. 17th ed. Rev. by John Ayto. New York, Collins, 2005. 1523 p.
- Franza, Jackie. It’s raining cats and dogs: making sense of animal phrases. Illustrated by Steve Gray. Irvine, CA, BowTie Press, c2005. 64 p. (Juvenile)
- Hendrickson, Robert. The Henry Holt encyclopedia of word and phrase origins. 1st Owl Book ed. New York, Holt, 1990. 581 p.
- Klingel, Cynthia Fitterer. It’s as clear as a bell!: (and other curious things we say). Illustrated by Mernie Gallagher-Cole. Mankato, MN, The Child’s World, c2010. 24 p. (Juvenile)
- Morris, William, and Mary Morris. Morris dictionary of word and phrase origins. 2nd ed. Foreword by Isaac Asimov. New York, Harper & Row, c1988. 669 p.
- Moses, Will. Raining cats and dogs. New York, Philomel Books, 2008. 37 p. (Juvenile)
- Oxford dictionary of idioms. 2nd ed. Edited by Judith Siefring. New York, Oxford University Press, 2005. 340 p.
- Radford, Edwin. To coin a phrase. Arrow ed. Edited and revised by Alan Smith. London, Arrow Books, 1974. 286 p.
- Rees, Nigel. Cassell’s dictionary of word and phrase origins. New ed. London, Cassell; New York, Distributed in the U.S. by Sterling Pub. Co, 2002. 274 p.
- Swift, Jonathan. Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation. In A tale of a tub, and other satires. London, J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.; New York, E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1932.
- Vaughan, Henry. Olor Iscanus. A collection of some select poems. London, Printed by T. W. for Humphrey Moseley, and are to be sold at his shop, at the Signe of the Prince’s Arms in St. Pauls Church-yard, 1651. 158 p.
more print resources...
Search on "Animal folklore," "English language etymology," or "English language terms and phrases"
in the Library of Congress Online
Il pleut des chats. The rain of cats. English drawing from the nineteenth century. Image from from the French Wikipedia.
Portrait of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745.) Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Cake Walk. This postcard was posted from Hungary in 1905 with a message written in Hungarian. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Curious Tom. Washington, D.C., 1936 December 23. "Tom ... inspects the cameraman's little black box. Stray cats and dogs at the pound were given a Christmas party today by the poundmaster, Frank B. Marks." Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Dog: You certainly have an advantage : Goat: Why so? : Dog: Why, the summer showers don't take the curl out of your horns. Watercolor drawing by E. Warde Blaisdell, [1903?]. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.