Written RamblesRaining Cats and Dogs: Unusual Origins of Common IdiomsTyler Vendetti

For someone trying to learn a language, idioms are perhaps the most devilish concept imaginable. Idioms are “forms of expression natural to a language, person, or group of people intended to complicate the comprehension of everyday speech.” (Okay, so I may have made up that last part, but I was only saying what everyone has been thinking for the past however many years idioms have been around. And by however many years, I mean, more accurately, however many centuries.)

They are phrases that, without prior explanation, would confound even the most academic know-it-alls. In other words, they are universal “inside jokes.” Due to years of feeling excluded from science class conversations as a result of my sheer inability to grasp anything involving numbers, I have developed a need to understand every unknown subject that crosses my path. So when, recently, I encountered an idiom that just didn’t make sense, I decided to research the origins of other idioms in case I ever needed to show off my intellectual prowess in future conversations.

Cold Shoulder

You know when you go to a restaurant and the waiter gives you a dirty look after you inhale your fifth straight basket of free tortilla chips and you suddenly realize that your appetizer appreciation is unwelcome at this particular eating establishment? The origin of “cold shoulder” is distantly related to that. The supposed origin of this phrase refers to a host who serves an unwanted guest a “cold shoulder of mutton” instead of a hot meal to hint at their status within the household. The first recorded reference to this expression comes from Sir Walter Scott’s The Antiquary published in 1816, in which he says:

“The Countess’s dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther”.

Thus, the story of “cold shoulder” reveals two things:

1)  Judging by the language used above, we can assume that insults in this century were significantly classier and more amusing than they are today.

2)  Passive aggressiveness has been around since people still said “mutton,” both of which I highly approve of.

Elephant in the Room

There are two potential origins for this expression. The first involves the ever-fabulous Mark Twain. In Twain’s 1882 short story, “The Stolen White Elephant,” a man spends days searching the streets of Jersey City for his missing elephant, only to find him dead in his own basement weeks after the initial escape. In this case, what he was looking for wasn’t in the room but rather, below his very feet. While Twain didn’t specifically include the words “elephant in the room” in his story, it captured the basic idea.

The second origin points to the expression’s first written appearance, which came in the form of a quote published in The Charleston Gazette circa 1952:

“Chicago, that’s an old Indian word meaning get that elephant out of your room.”

What the speaker of this quote meant by this phrase remains unclear. Therefore, I’m going to give Twain credit for this expression, as I trust more in his writing abilities than a confused journalist.

Cut Off Your Nose to Spite Your Own Face

This is where things start to get gruesome. The story behind this phrase goes like this: In the 9th century, a nun named Saint Ebba got word that the Vikings were planning on attacking Scotland so she instructed the other nuns to disfigure their faces in order to prevent the Vikings from wanting to rape them. Chopping off her nose and upper lip as a demonstration, Ebba encouraged the others to do the same, which they did (perhaps this was the start of the “if your friend jumped off a bridge, would you?” dilemma as well). When the Vikings arrived and found the women defaced, they set fire to the nunnery and left. Essentially, by going to extreme measures to avoid getting pregnant, the nuns lost everything they had.

It should be noted that this tale is unproven. Keeping records of events was difficult during the early centuries so such tales come up by word of mouth like a giant game of telephone. I’d be surprised if a few details didn’t drop out along the way.

Raining Cats and Dogs

“Raining cats and dogs” did not originate with some skewed version of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009). The reality is much more depressing. In the 17th and 18th century, England’s streets were not as cheery as they are today. Inclement weather often dragged debris and dead animals into the streets and the bodies would float down the water-logged roads, thus creating the illusion that they came with the rain. Another explanation claims that cats, dogs, and rodents would often bunk in the roofs of houses and then fall out into the streets during harsh storms. While the modern use of the phrase did not arrive until later, writer Jonathan Swift included this idea in his 1710 poem, “A Description of a City Shower,” but because I feel like the image of deceased animals is already too overwhelming, I won’t include it here.

Speak of the Devil

Originating in England, “speak of the devil” derives from the longer phrase “speak of the devil and he doth appear” or “talk of the devil and he’s presently at your elbow.” It was commonly believed that the mention of the Devil’s name caused him to appear, kind of like when the Kool-Aid man breaks through your living room wall the second you mention him. For this reason, people of the 17th century took to creating alternate names for the Devil such as “Old Nick” and “The Horned One” to avoid summoning him to the scene. So next time, if you really want to make Kool-Aid and you don’t want to hire someone to rebuild your wall, consider yelling out, “I really want some ‘Bright Red Powder-Based Liquid That Stains Literally Everything’” and wait for the crash. If all remains silent, you’ve won.

So there you have it, irrefutable proof that idioms make the least amount of sense. I can only hope that you use this information to spread cultural awareness to your peers so that you may feel more included in the English Language’s ultimate “inside joke.”

Image via TheExaminer.com. Idiom information via Phrases.org, WorldWideWords.org, and Yahoo.com.  

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  1. people still say mutton. just sayin.

  2. The equivalent idiom for “raining cats and dogs” in my language, greek, is “raining chairs’ legs” and I have no idea where it comes from. Just throwing it out there