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What are the Origins of the Phrase "It's Raining Cats and Dogs"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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In many English speaking areas of the world, heavy weather is sometimes described “raining cats and dogs,” suggesting that the rain is extremely heavy and rather unpleasant to be out in. A related saying from some parts of England is “raining stair-rods.” There are a number of explanations for the origins of this phrase, which dates to the 1600s, ranging from the mythological to the macabre. Unfortunately, the macabre explanation is probably the most likely.

On the mythological end of things, some people have suggested that the term comes from the idea that cats and dogs are associated with the weather in some regions of the world. Cats especially have historically been linked with witchcraft and the ability to control the weather. However, this explanation for “it's raining cats and dogs” seems a bit thin when you consider the fact that many cats are not fond of water, and therefore they would have no reason to cause heavy rains, even if they could.

A more whimsical explanation references the thatched roofs of many 16th century homes. This theory suggests that cats and dogs took refuge in the thatch, and when heavy rains came, the animals were washed off the roofs, causing it to look like it was raining cats and dogs. Unfortunately, thatch isn't like a haystack; thatching is made in thick bundles which would not serve to shelter an animal, and no animal would be foolish enough to stand on a roof in the pouring rain.

Some people have also suggested that the term is a reference to the obsolete French term catadoupe, which means waterfall. The related term Old English word catadupe — sometime spelled catadupa — also refers to a waterfall or cataract, usually referring to a shallow, rocky section of the Nile River.

Alas, the real story behind “it's raining cats and dogs” lies in an unpleasant fact of 16th century life. During this era, garbage, including dead animals, was often discarded along roads and streets, as there was no organized garbage collection. As a result, heavy rains would wash garbage into the streets of many towns, filling the streets with an unspeakable collection of feces, dead animals, rotting fruit, and an assortment of other unpleasant materials. A casual observer might have been under the impression that it was raining cats and dogs if he or she had glanced outside after a period of heavy rain, when the streets would have been filled with mud, filth, garbage, and discarded animal carcasses.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon995146 — On Apr 06, 2016

It would take an awful lot of dead cats and dogs lying in the garbage to make a large enough visible impact. Where would so many dead but not yet decomposed animals come from? It does not sound plausible to me.

Many, many years ago, I heard Paul Harvey give his explanation in "The Rest Of The Story". I'm inclined to think that he got it right.

Glad to see that I am not the only one who is old enough to have been a Paul Harvey fan.

The essay that I really want to find is Paul's explanation of "awful" and a dozen other words whose meanings have changed to become the opposite of what they originally meant. It was a real gem. This essay was not in his book, at least not the one that I read. Does anyone know where I can find the original reference? I have made several attempts to locate it using search engines.

By anon101033 — On Aug 01, 2010

Paul Harvey probably was more correct. The alternative was so disgusting to even fathom.

By anon51895 — On Nov 10, 2009

Your explanation is highly probable. But Paul Harvey on his radio show "The Rest of The Story," proposed a very different theory.

He suggested that it was a playful corruption of the Latin phrase "cata doxus", which means "contrary to orthodoxy," which translates as being an unusual or uncommon amount of rain.

Perhaps it was the combination of these two theories, certainly the sight of cats floating in the water after an unorthodox rain would be very compelling.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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