Turning a Phrase.

It’s been raining cats and dogs here for the past two days.

“Raining cats and dogs”: Everybody has said that at one time or another. It’s a distinctive expression, and is pretty much universal in the places where English is spoken. Oddly enough, however, nobody seems to know where or how it originated.The first use of the phrase is in print is in A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation by Jonathan Swift, published in 1738; presumably the expression was common enough by that time that he felt comfortable using it without providing an explanation. A number of possible origin myths have been put forward in the centuries since, but they are all little more than speculation, long after the fact, with nothing much to recommend one over another.

Peculiar figures of speech abound in English. I don’t mean simply the everyday idioms that confound people learning the language, such as “keep an eye on him”, or “he turned the house upside down”, but more evocative phrases that so obviously contain a story of some kind.

One of my favorites is: “He was as drunk as Cooter Brown.” I first heard this one from a very good friend in Birmingham, Alabama, who used to deliver it with a deadpan conviction that gave the expression the gravity of a line from Shakespeare. Several stories exist explaining Cooter Brown’s issues with alcohol, varying the character, ethnic background, and location, but they all agree generally that he was a man whose loyalties were so divided upon the outbreak of the Civil War that he drank himself into a stupor to avoid being required to fight on either side.

Of course, if Mr Brown had been a sailor instead of a soldier, he might have been described as “three sheets to the wind,” a description that has obvious nautical overtones: a “sheet” (from the Old English sceata) is a type of rope or chain that is used to anchor the corners of a sail. A sheet that is left “to the wind” is one that has been left unsecured, meaning, in turn, that the sail itself is flapping uncontrollably, with the expected negative effect on the ship’s stability. A ship with “three sheets to the wind” would likely wallow all over the place in a drunken manner.

Mr Brown’s alcohol consumption would also leave him “groggy”, another term with nautical origins. There is a Middle French term “gross grain” which refers to a type of very coarse fabric. The English corruption of that phrase gives us “grogram”, which came to also refer to a type of cape or cloak made from gross-grain cloth. Eighteenth-century British Admiral Edward Vernon was so often seen in such a cloak that he was nicknamed “Old Grogram” or “Old Grog”. In 1740 he addressed the problem of sailors becoming “three sheets to the wind” while on board his ships by ordering their rum rations to be diluted with water. A sailor was no longer as likely to get drunk, but might still get “groggy”.

US President George Washington’s half-brother served under Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon, and in 1740  named the family’s Virginia plantation “Mount Vernon” in his honor.

Admiral Vernon might, in some ways, be described as a “dog in the manger”. A dog that beds down in a manger, a rack or bin holding hay for the animals in a barn, will have no intention of eating the hay himself, but nonetheless prevents any of the other animals from enjoying it.

In medieval Europe the dog might not be in the manger mucking up the hay, but on top of the barn, nestled into the bundles of straw used to thatch the roof, along with the cats who stalked the mice and lizards who infested the straw; until a really heavy rainstorm, of course, which could conceivably send cats, dogs, and all, tumbling into the structure below.

Raining cats and dogs, indeed.

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