What Does Raining Cats and Dogs Mean? Origins of the Phrase


Last Updated on: August 9, 2023 by Crystal Uys

The phrase “raining cats and dogs” is a common expression used to describe heavy rain or a sudden downpour. While the phrase’s meaning is well-known, its origins are less clear. Many theories suggest where the phrase came from, ranging from practical to mythical.

Some suggest the phrase originated from the poor drainage systems in 17th-century Europe. Meanwhile, others believe that it may have its roots in Norse mythology. Another theory suggests the phrase was a French word misheard by English speakers.

While there’s no definitive answer, examining these theories can tell us how the phrase has evolved. Let’s explore the various theories about the origins of the phrase “raining cats and dogs.”


What Does “Raining Cats and Dogs” Mean?

In modern usage, the idiom “raining cats and dogs” is typically used to describe very heavy rain. It often has the connotation that the rain is unexpected or sudden. For example, someone might say, “I was going to take a walk, but it’s raining cats and dogs out there.”

The phrase can also describe other things coming down heavily or in large quantities. For instance, someone might say, “The leaves are falling like it’s raining cats and dogs.” That would describe a particularly heavy autumnal leaf fall.

Alternatively, they could say, “My inbox is full of emails; it’s raining cats and dogs in here.” It would describe an overwhelming number of incoming messages.

Overall, “raining cats and dogs” is a common and flexible idiom used to describe heavy rain. It can also define other things coming down heavily, in large quantities, or in a chaotic or disorderly situation.

heavy rain outdoors in the garden
Image Credit: chulmin1700, Pixabay

Origin of “Raining Cats and Dogs”

The origin of the idiom “raining cats and dogs” is uncertain. It has been a topic of much speculation and debate among language experts for centuries. While the true origin of the phrase is unknown, several theories detail how it may have come to be.

Here are some cultural and historical references that help provide context for its use. They also shed light on the various associations and meanings the phrase has acquired over time.

Medieval Europe

It’s believed that “raining cats and dogs” came from medieval Europe, where people built their homes with thatched straw roofs. Thatched roofs were popular as they were easy to assemble and provided good insulation. But, during heavy rain, the straw would weigh down the roof, causing it to collapse.

Small animals, like cats and dogs, would sometimes hide in the rafters of these roofs to escape the rain. When the roof would collapse during a heavy rainstorm, the animals would fall from the roof. This unexpected sight during heavy rain might have led people to say it was “raining cats and dogs.”

While there isn’t enough evidence to support this theory, it is popular among language experts. So, it’s often suggested as a possible origin of the phrase. The theory has some historical merit, as thatched roofs were common in medieval Europe.

These roofs often collapsed during heavy rain in the medieval era. Additionally, cats and dogs lived as pets and might have sought shelter in the rafters during a storm.

Norse Mythology

Another “raining cats and dogs” theory suggests it came from Norse mythology. In Norse mythology, cats and dogs were associated with storms and bad weather. The Norse god Odin owned a pair of cats he sent into the clouds to battle with Thor, the god of thunder.

The cats would claw at the clouds and make them release their rain, leading to the belief that cats caused rain. So, the phrase described the idea that during heavy rainstorms, these mythological creatures were fighting in the clouds and causing the rain to fall more heavily.

While there is little to no evidence to support this theory, it serves as a possible origin of the phrase.

heavy rain in the streets
Image Credit: Benfe, Pixabay

French Phrase “Catadoupe”

Another theory suggests that it may have originated from the French phrase “catadoupe.” In French, “catadoupe” means waterfall or cataract. This phrase may have entered England during the Norman Conquest of 1066 when French became the language of the English court.

When spoken quickly or with a regional accent, “catadoupe” may sound like “cats and dogs.” The phrase was possibly misheard and repeated by English speakers. Eventually, it became the English expression “raining cats and dogs.”

While little evidence supports this theory, it’s a plausible explanation. The fact that many people spoke French in England during the Middle Ages makes it believable. The similarity between “catadoupe” and “cats and dogs” also adds to its plausibility.

Greek Expression

Another theory suggests that it may have come from the Greek expression “cata doxa.” In Greek, “cata doxa” means “contrary to experience or belief.” This expression was used to describe situations that were unexpected or contrary to what one might expect.

“Raining cats and dogs” describes an unusual and unexpected situation that seems contrary to belief. If it was raining so hard that it seemed impossible, people might say it was “raining cats and dogs.”

The fact that “cata doxa” and “cats and dogs” sound similar could have contributed to its evolution. But no clear evidence suggests that the phrase was borrowed from Greek.

Jonathan Swift’s Poem

One theory suggests the phrase refers to poor drainage systems on buildings in 17th-century Europe. During heavy rain, the drains on buildings could become clogged with debris and other materials. As a result, they would overflow and disgorge their contents onto the streets below.

This could include the corpses of any animals accumulated in the drains. It was a grim and unpleasant sight for onlookers.

This theory is referenced in Jonathan Swift’s 1710 poem “Description of a City Shower.” Swift describes a heavy London rain that sends unpleasant items along with the flood. That includes “drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud, dead cats and turnip-tops.”

“Raining cats and dogs” describes an unpleasant and unexpected sight. So, it’s consistent with the idea that it originated from seeing animal corpses and other debris during heavy rain.

a woman and a child standing by the streets while raining
Image Credit: JumpStory

European Folklore

One possible reference is the association of cats and dogs with witches and their familiars in European folklore. During the Middle Ages, cats and dogs were often portrayed as companions of witches. The animals were also believed to have magical powers.

Thus, the idea of cats and dogs falling from the sky during heavy rain may have been seen as a supernatural occurrence. It was believed that these witches could control the weather. People also thought they might use their powers to make it rain cats and dogs as a form of punishment or to cause chaos.

The association of these animals with witches dates back to the medieval period. Cats were also thought to communicate with spirits and shape-shift into other animals. Similarly, dogs were considered to have the power to detect and ward off evil spirits.

The phrase may have served as a warning of impending danger or a sign of bad luck.

Animal Welfare in the 18th Century

Another reference is the association of cats and dogs with animal welfare in the 1800s. During this period, there were concerns about the treatment of cats and dogs in urban areas. The animals were often neglected or mistreated in these areas.

The phrase may have been used to draw attention to the plight of these animals. It also possibly encouraged people to be more mindful of their welfare.

Nonsensical Phrase

There are many theories on the origin of the phrase “raining cats and dogs.” But it’s also possible that there is no clear or logical explanation for its origin. It could be a nonsensical phrase used for its humorous or exaggerated effect.

It could have described particularly heavy rainfall without any underlying metaphor or symbolism. It resembles other English expressions for heavy rain, like “raining pitchforks” or “raining hammer handles.” These expressions convey the intensity of a storm without any deeper meaning.

It’s also possible that the phrase evolved from many different origins and influences. As with many aspects of language and culture, the phrase’s origins may have been lost or forgotten. New interpretations and meanings emerged as the words were passed down through generations.

Ultimately, the exact origin of the phrase “raining cats and dogs” may remain a mystery.


Conclusion

“Raining cats and dogs” is a well-known expression used to describe heavy rain or a sudden downpour. Despite its widespread use, the phrase’s origins remain mysterious. There have been several different theories proposed over the years.

Regardless of its origin, its popularity highlights how language and culture evolve. From ancient myths to practical considerations, the phrase has been shaped by numerous cultural and historical influences.


Featured Image Credit: sirtravelalot, Shutterstock

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