Saturday, June 18, 2011

Of Cats, Dogs and Other Sayings

It’s been raining cats and dogs in my city since yesterday. Thank god, it’s Saturday today and I don’t have to step out unless I want to. Anyway, this post is not about my experiences in a rain-battered city but more about cats and dogs – the saying that is.

I find it fascinating how some phrases are such an integral part of our vocabulary that we never stop to think where do they come from. Take raining cats and dogs, for example. After all, it never literally rains cats and dogs, does it?

Yesterday once I reached office and settled down, I googled the saying (ever wondered where we would be without Google?). It took me to the site where I found quite a bit of interesting info. Apparently no one quite knows what is the exact origin of the phrase. There are several theories though.

Wolves and dogs in Norse mythology are associated with Odin, the god of storms. Cats are often seen as the pets of witches who could ride the win. Hence, some speculate, that could have led to the saying. There is another one which talks of how cats and dogs were washed from thatched roof during winter, where they would have buried themselves to find warmth! 

But the most probable is the one where Jonathan Swift has been accredited with the origin of the saying. In one of his poems about the general mess caused by rains in London, he refers to how cats and dogs drown in the rain and are washed out into the street (“Drown'd Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench'd in Mud, Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood”, ‘A Description of City Shower’). One of the earliest records of the phrase in its current form is found in Swift’s own ‘A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation’ in 1738:"I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs".

There are other not so illogical idioms and sayings also. For instance, stubborn as a donkey. Now there is plenty of evidence of that. And too many cooks spoil the broth. I am pretty sure that most of us have experience on that front. Ditto for you cannot teach an old dog a new trick.

Curiosity killed the cat is another matter though. How many of us have ever seen that happen? Again there is no definite idea on where did the phrase come from. It is in its earliest form was seen Ben Jonson’s ‘Every Man in His Humour’, where Care was supposed to be capable of killing a cat. Its current form apparently is, however, merely a century old, tracing back to 1898 in ‘Galveston Daily News’.

A cat (the animal is all over the place!) is also said to have nine lives. This one, it is said, originated in ancient Egypt, where Pasht or Bashtet, a cat-headed goddess was attributed with nine lives.

Gosh! I sure could use nine lives. Or may be not. It just might get too boring!



  1. I cannot seem to locate it right now.. but there is a book which is about orgin of phrases.. and a really interesting one.. I just googled it.. its called Red herrings and White elephants!!! Many of the phrases in fact have a nautical origin!! A very very interesting read... makes for a really interesting gift too! :)

  2. Thanks, Moonshine. I will keep my eyes peeled for that one.

  3. Interesting to think about how these phrases came by... I wonder how many our generation will contribute..e.g. 'to Google someone', 'write on the Wall' or 'Scrap someone', 'tweet about', etc.

  4. @ supernova: there are also 'tagging'and 'pinging' :-)