Raining cats and dogs

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Tue Apr 16 22:56:24 UTC 2002

I have turned into a lurker amongst you folks, deleting most postings
unread.  I have followed this topic though, and make the following
highly pertinent remarks:

In New York City, at least, the system of storm sewers was neither
extensive nor effective until the middle of the 19th century, so that a
heavy rainfall would send streams of water flowing down the gutters,
carrying street filth with them.  The system of garbage collection was
also highly inadequate.  The citizen were required to throw their
garbage into the street, and every morning to push in into mounds, for
garbage collectors to shovel up and carry off.  However, the garbage
collectors frequently failed to make their rounds at all, or made them
in the late morning or afternoon, by which time the mounds of garbage
had been leveled and spread about by the traffic and also by the street
pigs, rooting around for tidbits.  Finally, dead cats and dogs seem to
have been a fairly common element in street trash.

The Commercial Advertiser of August 14, 1823, p. 2, col. 1 complained
that there are many "bodies of dead cats, lying corrupting and floating
in the sun", in the streets, and the N-Y Evening Post, January 22,
1825, p. 2, col. 2 listed "old bones, old hats, broken pots, dead cats
and dogs, &c., &c." among the rubbish dumped in the Park in front of
City Hall.  Dead horses and cows must have been fairly common, too, and
the NY Daily Advertiser, October 22, 1822, p. 2, col. 6 advises those
interested that "Any person in want of a dead pig may find one that
will probably serve his purpose in the middle of Broadway between
Broome and Spring-streets."  Presumably the city never saw a rainstorm
heavy enough to carry off corpses of that size, but cats and dogs, no
doubt yes.

Which doesn't prove that the expression "raining cats and dogs" alludes
to dead small animals floating in the run-off.  But I didn't find the
other etymologies proposed real convincing either.

Back to the shadows.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998.

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