Phrase of the day: raining cats and dogs

We’re joking, of course. This is really NOT our chunk of the day. Only students of English and people who haven’t lived in the UK since about 1950 actually use this idiom – and it probably wasn’t even used that much back in the Fifties either! However, as London has now returned to normal after the freak snowstorms we wrote about last week and the rain is pouring down outside, while the temperature has dropped to 5 or 6 degrees, it seems like a good moment to talk about heavy rain, language learning … and a bit of gentle laughter directed at France!

When we tell our learners that no-one actually says raining cats and dogs, they are often a bit disappointed; you might even say that we burst their bubble! I can understand that because the idea of raining cats and dogs is truly odd. It’s like something Roald Dahl would invent . . . and I guess because of that, it’s easy to remember as a bit of language. This should be a reminder to teachers and students that linking language to images in our head can help us learn.

Apart from raining cats and dogs, there are still plenty of other images you can see in our descriptions of rain. Most involve the idea of someone in the sky: it could be God or a weather fairy, but I think when it comes to British weather, it is probably some evil clown. We say it’s pouring down or it’s bucketing down (imagine someone deliberately emptying a bottle or bucket of water on your head); or we might say it’s chucking it down (picture someone throwing water at you). Of course, we have a more disgusting image – and we have a very common way of saying it’s raining heavily, which is it’s pissing (it) down (literally someone is going to the toilet on us!!). In addition, when we feel a few drops of rain, we sometimes say it’s spitting (down). Of course, after all that, you may prefer to stick with raining cats and dogs!

All this talk of rain should remind you that if you come to the UK at any time of year, you should bring a brolly (umbrella) or a raincoat, because we guarantee it will rain, and the rain can last for hours in a classic British drizzle (light rain), thus allowing the French and others to laugh at our terrible weather.

However, let’s not forget that every now and then it actually chucks it down even more over in France. A couple of years ago, for example, hours, even days, of the French Open tennis were washed out (cancelled because of the rain)! And how pleased some UK newspapers were! That’s because the Wimbledon Centre Court now has a roof, while the French don’t!

Given the current state of UK-EU relations, this might be seen as one more example of how useless the Europeans are, but that would be conveniently forgetting that the UK is still waiting for the kind of high-speed rail network that the French have had for forty years – and we’re now asking the French to build our nuclear power plants! And, of course, it’s pouring down here too!!  But hey! At least we have a roof at Wimbledon.

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  • What idioms for weather do you have in your language?
  • Do you use images to try and remember language?
  • Have you ever planned to do something or go somewhere that was then washed out?
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14 Responses

  1. Oksana says:

    Hello! Glad to know London has returned to normal! In Russian to talk about heavy rain we use the similar idiom which literally means ‘It’s pouring like from a bucket.’ Colourful images always work! And very telling are the idioms!

    • hugh dellar says:

      Not sure anyone else is glad we’re back to rain, I have to say! Anyway . . . again, funny to note how similar many ways of expressing ideas idiomatically are from language to language.

  2. Ameenah Hajeej says:

    Thanks Hugh, I can’t believe I taught this idiom so many times to my students, I nerver knew it was outdated, It appeared in every idioms book I checked, but never indicated as being old-fashioned. It seems that everything we learnt is kind of outdated now, that’s really frustrating! What could help us stay updated? Do you know a good book that includes information about idioms which are no longer used?

  3. Rakesh says:

    Thanks for update. We were taught the ‘cats and dogs’ idiom and it was hard to convince ourselves and we thought this was just another one of those English ways of saying ‘heavy rainfall’. I enjoyed reading your blog.

  4. Rakesh says:

    Could you tell us the word for a fine spray ,not the
    light drizzle . I think Scots have a word for it.

  5. Michelle says:

    I’m a youngish(!) American who definitely says ‘raining cats and dogs’ anyone it pours 🙂
    I don’t consider it outdated at all, it is always used with children, too.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      This may be a US-UK difference . . . or your use of it may be more idiosyncratic that you realise. 🙂
      I was once at a bus stop in London, 7.30am, pissing rain, and there was a young Korean lad clutching a copy of Headway Intermediate sat down next to an old lady already there. Sensing this was his moment, he turned to her and – pointing at the relentless rain – said “It is raining cats and dogs today!”

      In response, she glared and him, turned to me and said “Tourists, eh! Mind you, it is properly pelting down, innit.”

  6. sophie says:

    Thanks for the book suggestion!

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