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Tell me why: Raining cats and dogs. June 12, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in pets, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood hit our tiny local library Saturday for its weekly book sale. The prices can’t be beat—free to a whopping $2.50 for a huge, full-color hardcover reference book or top-of-the-line cookbook—and you never know what you’re going to find.

Yesterday, word geek that I am, I was thrilled to find Cool Cats, Top Dogs, and Other Beastly Expressions by Christine Ammer (Houghton Mifflin, 1999). As the back cover explained, the book, a pet-loving etymologist’s dream, presents “engaging essays on over a thousand animal expressions in everyday language.” I had to have it, especially for 50 cents. 

The second we got home, I looked up an expression that had puzzled me forever: “raining cats and dogs.” Okay, you can get pelted by some pretty big drops during certain thunderstorms, but they’ve never reminded our friend Ben of cats and dogs. Who would think of such a thing?!

Fortunately, Ms. Ammer’s book did not disappoint. Though she admitted that the origin is unclear, she was able to say that it was already a British cliche by the time Samuel Johnson used it in 1738. She presented several theories, of varying degrees of preposterousness, that had been put forward as to the phrase’s origin, including the inevitable “blame it on the French.”

Someone had even suggested that perhaps the sound of a raging storm had brought to mind a cat-and-dogfight. But since our black German shepherd, Shiloh, is constantly attempting to play with her favorite interactive toys, our three cats, to their varying degrees of vocal displeasure, our friend Ben can assure you that this explanation is really grasping at straws.

Ms. Ammer herself had by far the most plausible theory for the colorful expression, though our friend Ben warns you in advance that it isn’t pretty: “In 17th-century Britain, after a cloudburst the gutters and ditches would overflow with a filthy torrent that included dead animals, as well as sewage and other debris.” (Silence, reading over my shoulder, is screaming “Eeeeewww!!!” in my ear.)

Our friend Ben is looking forward to reading the rest of the book, as well as many other treasures we picked up at the sale, including treasuries of “Calvin and Hobbes” and “The Far Side,” two of my all-time favorite cartoons. It looks like it’s going to be raining cats and dogs here at Hawk’s Haven today, so it’s a perfect excuse to catch up on our reading. But we think we’ll make sure our cats and dog stay inside.

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