Rosie Right 

Detective Work

A friend has asked the origin of the phrase "raining cats and dogs." It is such a strange phrase that you might think that it would be easy to locate its first use and the meaning. Wrong! Sites such as World Wide Words make a valiant try but don't seem to come up with a satisfactory answer.

According to the Web site Takeourwordforit.com:

"There are several other Web sites that make a stab at finding the answer. The most satisfactory one is: The origins of this curious phrase, which originated in the 17th century, have been lost, but the current accepted theory is that, due to the primitive drainage systems used in the 17th century, a heavy rainstorm could cause gutters to overflow with much debris, including garbage, sewage, and dead animals. Other possibilities include the notion that a severe storm could be considered similar to cats and dogs fighting, or that in Northern European mythology, it is believed that cats influence the weather and dogs represent wind."

There is no hard evidence for these theories and actually they seem a bit improbable. The search for the answer to my friend's question is a reminder that sometimes there is no answer to our questions.

Those of you who like etymology might like these Web pages also: Animal Planet, The Phrase Finder and, of course, our old friend World Wide Words.

BBC2 and the Oxford English Dictionary have been running a six-part series "Balderdash and Piffle." On this program the OED has appealed for help in finding the origins and the date of the first usage of 50 words. With some possible memories of "The Professor and the Madman," the public has responded and changes have been made in the OED. "Balderdash" has been so popular that a new series is being produced and will be ready at Eastertime. Then perhaps we can help find earlier dates for words than the word-hunters have yet discovered.

Here are some samples of the words the OED wants to date correctly:

moony, moonie [1990]

mullet (hairstyle) [1994]

nerd [1951]

phwoar [1980]

pick'n'mix [1959]

Also, the dictionary editors are always looking for new words "that aren't in the OED but should be." If you know such a word, the editors ask that you send it and the evidence of it to wordhunt@bbc.co.uk or by old-fashioned mail to BBC Word Hunt, 132 Grafton Road, London NW5 4BA, England.

Let Rosie hear from you by mail (1707 Summit Ave., Suite 201, Richmond, VA 23230); by e-mail (rozanne.epps@styleweekly.com); or by telephone (358-0825).


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