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Where Did the Term Raining Cats and Dogs Come From? (History & Possible Origins)

Codee Chessher

By Codee Chessher

Corgi dog and striped cat sit on grass with sunglasses on

When it rains, it pours—sometimes cats and dogs. Nobody’s quite sure about where the phrase “raining cats and dogs” came from, but we have plenty of historical breadcrumbs to trace its origins as far as the 16th century.  Most would agree the quote is British, considering its history and tone, so at least we know that much.

There are lots of popular theories about where this colorful analogy for a torrential downpour came from, and this article aims to cover all of them. Wade into etymological history with us below and pick which theory you think fits the phrase best.

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Historical Evidence of the Term Raining Cats and Dogs

The first written evidence of the phrase “it’s raining cats and dogs” was by British poet Henry Vaughan in 1651. In a collection of poems called Olor Iscanus, Vaughan spoke of a roof reinforced against “dogs and cats rained in shower.”

Just a year later, Richard Brome, another British poet, wrote, “It shall rain dogs and polecats” in his comedy City Witt. Polecats were a relative of the weasel and were common in England at the time, but that’s as close as he gets to mentioning cats.

Over a century later, the Irish author Jonathan Swift used the phrase in his Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversations, a satirical collection that lampooned upper-class conversations. In it, a character says, “I know Sir John would go, though he fears it would rain cats and dogs.”

Aside from those quotes, we have the suspiciously similar French phrase “Il pleut comme vache qui pisse,” which means “It’s raining like a peeing cow.”

In all honesty, we may never discover who we owe for the phrase, but we have a pretty solid guess that an eloquent Briton is to thank.

A dog and a cat laying on the floor
Image credit: New Africa, Shutterstock

Possible Origins of the Phrase

Although we can’t find any sign of the phrase farther back than the 1600s, people have used animals to describe the weather for centuries. Bear in mind that these aren’t definite connections, and they may or may not be relevant at all. Possible origins include:

  • The term “cats and dogs” could come from the Greek phrase cata doxa, meaning “contrary to experience or expectations.”
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests that cats and dogs would sometimes fall through poorly built thatch roofs, giving the impression of literally raining animals.
  • Cats and dogs have been associated with witches and the Norse god Odin, respectively, and both mythological figures are connected to poor weather like rain.
  • Some unsubstantiated medieval anecdotes imply that pets left outside during bad weather would drown and get washed away.
  • In 1592, English writer Gabriel Harvey wrote, “In steed of thunderboltese, shooteth nothing but dogboltes, or catboltes.”
  • Before his previous quote, Jonathan Swift alluded to dead cats and puppies swept along in torrential floods.
  • Some people believe the phrase comes from a bastardization of the French word ‘catadoupe,’ meaning waterfall.
woman introducing cat to dog
Image Credit: Chendongshan, Shutterstock

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The next time the heavens open up and a storm strikes, give some thought to why we say, “It’s raining cats and dogs!” We’ll probably never know exactly where it comes from, but at least it’s fun to speculate on the various connections throughout history.

Featured Image Credit: Bachkova Natalia, Shutterstock

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