“It is raining cats and dogs” is an English idiom with undetermined origins. It is used to describe a very heavy rain but not one that’s necessarily associated with animals. At least in a popular source, the phrase was first noted in Jonathon’s Swift’s Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, published in 1738. In it, one of Swift’s characters expresses a fear that it’s going to “rain cats and dogs.” Although it is unclear whether or not Swift invented the phrase, this, scholars believe, was likely the beginning of its popularity. The amusing nature of the phrase probably led to its continued use.
Origins of “It’s raining cats and dogs”
Like many idioms, “it’s raining cats and dogs” does not have a defined origin, but there are several interesting possibilities or etymologies.
17th Century Drainage Systems
This is one of the primary possibilities for where the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” originated. It might be related to the inferior drainage systems in Europe in the seventeenth century. They would often overflow, sending their contents out and onto the streets. This might’ve included animal corpses that had become stuck in the system. There is, in fact, a documented occurrence of this very event. Jonathon Swift describes animals “tumbling down the flood” in his poem ‘Description of a City Shower.’
Another interesting possibility comes from the Greek expression “cata doxa,” meaning “contrary to experience or belief”. This looks at the saying from another, less literal direction. Perhaps over time, it has been misread and interpreted to “cats and dogs,” suggesting that the rain is extraordinary.
This is another word-oriented origin. The word “catadupe” is an old English word meaning “waterfall.” This suggests that the phrase came from a misreading or evolution of the word.
This is yet again, another word-based possibility. The word “katadoupi” comes from Greek. It refers to the Nile’s waterfalls and might have been corrupted into “cats and dogs.”
One of the most amusing possibles (for which there is no evidence) comes from the idea that in 16th century Europe, animals that crawled into thatched homes to find shelter would fall out during a heavy rainstorm.
Some of the other possibilities come from familiar images of Odin, the Norse God of storms, alongside dogs and wolves and another of witches who riding in storms and were often accompanied by cats.
Other Interesting English Idioms
“It’s raining cats and dogs” is hardly the only unusual idiom in the English language. There are many more, some even more puzzling.
- “A blessing in disguise” meaning: something good that initially seems bad.
- “Beat around the bush” meaning: avoiding what one really wants to say.
- “Cut somebody some slack” meaning: give someone a break or don’t be so critical.
- “Benefit of the doubt” meaning: trust what someone says.
- “A penny saved is a penny earned” meaning: if you save money now, you can spend it later.
- “Speak of the devil” meaning: someone just appeared who was the subject of conversation.
- “Birds of a feather flock together” meaning: common people make good friends.
- “Break the ice” meaning: make a situation more comfortable for people.
- “The best of both worlds” meaning: everything turned out well.
- “Apples to oranges” meaning: a comparison between two, unlike things.
- “Don’t get bent out of shape” meaning: don’t get upset.
- “Under the weather” meaning: sick or depressed.