I’m a nerd. In fact, I’m such a big nerd that I tend to look up word origins in my spare time because I’m fascinated by our language. The odder the origin, the better. I’ve got a collection of random information in my brain that makes me an awesome Trivial Pursuit partner, but is completely useless when it comes to real world application. Like say, job applications.
In any case, I thought I’d share some of this random crap with you guys in the form of the new acronym-ific series. I give you – Word Origins from Left Field – that’s right, the WOLF. Er… ignore the fact that the “from” doesn’t fit, and also that this first feature of WOLF is actually an idiom, not a word.
Today we’ll tackle the phrase “raining cats and dogs.” There are a lot of erroneous assumptions about where we got this little gem, but the truth is that we have the same guy to thank for this as we do the outrage over eating Irish babies a little while back. Yeah, Mr. Jonathan Swift.
You might have guessed this, but big cities in the 17th and 18th centuries didn’t exactly smell great. The unwashed masses… well… they were unwashed, and massing. Personal hygiene wasn’t a big priority, and your neighbor’s hygiene even less so. Got a full piss-pot? Toss it out the window! Done with you lunch? Throw it out the door! Did your cat die? Give her the boot!
I don’t know if many people actually kept household pets back then, but the streets were overrun with strays sniffing out the garbage, and multiplying just as prolifically as the people. Crushed by carts, kicked by mean assholes, or just falling dead in their tracks of sickness and starvation, dead doggies and kitties could probably be found in streets everywhere.
And a good hard rain could run down those cobbled streets, turning it into a river and picking up all the detritus on its way, creating the image that it had actually rained cats and dogs. We probably never would have had this lovely idiom without Jonathan Swift immortalizing it in the last section of his poem, A Description of a City Shower:
Now from all Parts the swelling Kennels flow,
And bear their Trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all Hues and Odours seem to tell
What Streets they sail’d from, by the Sight and Smell.
They, as each Torrent drives, with rapid Force
From Smithfield, or St.Pulchre’s shape their Course,
And in huge Confluent join at Snow-Hill Ridge,
Fall from the Conduit prone to Holborn-Bridge.
Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts, and Blood,
Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnips-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.
Awesome! Who wants to go live in the Middle Ages??
What’s your favorite word origin? Tell me, or ask one you’ve always been curious about – I’ll do my best to find the answer and get back to you in a future WOLF!