Familiar expression has gruesome origin

Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2003

We've all heard the familiar expression, "It's raining cats and dogs," but have you ever pondered where that saying came from? It is difficult to say for certain the exact origin of the phrase but there are several possible theories.

Desmond Morris, a past curator of the London Zoo who is renowned for his anthropological and zoological research, believes the phrase became popular several centuries ago at a time when the streets of towns and cities were narrow, filthy and had poor drainage.

It is his contention that unusually heavy storms produced torrential flooding, which in turn drowned large numbers of the homeless, half-starved cats and dogs that lacked shelter from the storms.

After a downpour was over, people would emerge from their houses to find the corpses of these unfortunate animals and, since the general masses of that period were undereducated and often highly superstitious, they believed the bodies must have fallen from the sky.

A description of the impact of a severe city storm, written by Jonathan Swift in 1710, supports this view: "Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow, and bear their trophies with them as they go ... drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud, dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood."

The severe weather Web site at http://www.cotf.edu/ete/modules/sevweath/swcatsdogs.html lists numerous ac-counts of rains of frogs, hay, fish, grasshoppers, ice-coated ducks and grain. All of these accounts were believed to be caused by tornado-like conditions producing "whirlwinds."

A good whirlwind is believed to have the strength to lift thousands of pounds and carry objects for miles.

There is one reliable account of a fishing boat that sailed into a large waterspout. Fish were reported to have flown everywhere and were deposited a great distance from the initial location.

The Web site reports there are about 70 recorded rains of fish, but nearly all of the rains of fish are small ones. There is, however, one account of a fish fall in India in which more than 10 people picked up fish weighing up to eight pounds each after a storm.

There are no known accounts of cats and dogs falling from the sky in a storm, according to the Web site, and although it's improbable, it's not impossible.

There is another, more mythological explanation for the saying. In the Dark Ages, people believed that animals, including cats and dogs, had magical powers.

Cats were associated with storms, especially the black cats of witches, while dogs were frequently associated with winds. The Norse storm god Odin was frequently shown surrounded by dogs and wolves.

So when a particularly violent storm came along, people would say, "It's raining cats and dogs," with the cats symbolizing the rain and the dogs representing the wind and storm.

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