Why Do We Say That? 4 Canine Influences on the English Language

raining cats and dogs

English, as a language, can be so complicated, full of nuances, and sometimes just plain weird, and even native speakers are often left wondering why it’s formed the way it is.

One quirk you’ll often see, especially when chatting with people, is the use of metaphor and idioms – why say what we mean, when there’s more colourful or interesting ways of putting it, especially if you can get away with saying something that might be a bit rude or cheeky, or properly offensive if you were to say it plainly!

Dogs are often referred to as ‘man’s best friend’ because of how devoted they are to their human companions, and it’s not a one-way street – as a nation, we love our dogs as much as they love us. This isn’t a new thing either, Britain was the first country in the world to create a welfare charity for animals – in 1824, the Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed, and by 1840 it had acquired Royal patronage (from Queen Victoria, who famously said, “Nothing will turn a man’s home into a castle more quickly and effectively than a dachshund”), and you’ll now recognise its modern iteration as the RSPCA.

So, when you combine a nation of dog lovers, with a language that seems to delight in being as complicated and unique as possible, it’s really not a surprise to find canine connections in many phrases, idioms, and metaphors.

Today we’re going to look at four of these, where they came from, what they mean, and how they’re used in conversation. Let’s dive in and get you like a dog with two tails!

It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

A perfect example of not saying the simplest thing, this phrase means that it’s raining heavily.

There is quite a bit of debate over where the phrase came from, and how old it is. Some speculate that it has its roots in Norse mythology as Odin was often depicted with wolves and dogs (symbols of the wind. Sailors associated cats (especially black cats) with heavy rain – so the idea here is the iconography of wind and rain (Odin’s storm) was depicted as cats and dogs.

Other scholars believe that the phrase originated from the now obsolete word ‘catadupe’ (it does sound a bit like cat a dog) which meant waterfall (which makes sense in the context of heavy rain).

A less pleasant potential origin for the phrase comes from Tudor times, where poor drainage and a large number of stray animals would see cats and dogs caught out in bad weather and unfortunately perish in the storm waters. Then when people came out of their houses, to see dead animals in the streets, it appeared as if it had actually rained cats and dogs.

The first recorded usage of the phrase was in 1651, British poet Henry Vaughan wrote a collection of poems (Olor Iscanus) and included a line about having a strong roof that was secure against, “dogs and cats rained in shower”.

Some idioms or metaphors develop different meanings over time, but ‘raining cats and dogs’ has maintained its meaning and usage. Of course, when it is raining cats and dogs, and you’re out and about with your dog, you’re going to want to have essentials that stand up to the wet – such as Em & Me Studio’s Waterproof Poop Bag Dispenser, perfectly designed to keep your bags ready for use (and easy to open) so you’re not outside longer than you want to be!

Work Like a Dog

This phrase highlights just how much we think of a dog’s working ethics, and how hard they’re able to push themselves. In a positive sense, to work like a dog is to work extremely hard and push yourself that bit further, it comes from observing working dogs who have been known to work from sun-up to sun-down with absolute focus and commitment to the task at hand.

The phrase also has a bit of a bitter connotation to it, which is more obvious in the extended version of the phrase – “You can work like a dog, and still not make ends meet!”

It ruefully acknowledges that dogs don’t get monetary payment for their labours, and how some people can work their absolute hardest, but not see an equivalent reward at the end of it.

This extended usage perhaps isn’t as relevant today as it was when it was first coined in the early 1700’s, as many dogs are rewarded lavishly with praise, fuss, toys, and natural treats that promote good health, and are pampered or spoiled as much as possible (as it should be!) by their loving families.

Some people also take the phrase to mean that they’re being worked extremely hard and are being ‘bossed around’ (in the way that a working dog is trained to obey commands), and they use the phrase to underscore their dissatisfaction with a lack of acknowledgement from their boss or superior.

But positive or negative, the phrase maintains that dogs are hard-working creatures!

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Have you ever woken your dog up when they’re super comfy, wrapped in their warm blankets and bed – only to be greeted with grumbles, evil glares, and a less than happy pooch, or perhaps you wake them, and suddenly are confronted with a whirlwind of wagging tails, flapping ears, and a whole cacophony of noise?

To ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ means to prevent disturbance, and not cause a situation where trouble or frustration could occur. To give this context – imagine you’ve got the shopping delivery man at the door, and your dog is snoozing happily on their Band & Roll Blanket, if you wake the dog – they’re going to bark and try to escape. If you let them sleep, you can get the shopping in unencumbered – yes, here you would indeed ‘let sleeping dogs lie’!

The phrase originated in 1380, when Chaucer published his work ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, and included the line, “It is nought good a slepyng hound to wake”. The first usage of the more modern iteration came in 1822 from an article in the London Magazine titled ‘The Second Tale of Allan Lorburne’ where the author wrote, “Let sleeping dogs lie, said the daft man when he saw the dead hound before him.”

The observation and meaning behind the phrase has completely stood the test of time, because even now, more than 600 years later, it’s still better to let your dog nap if you don’t want them underfoot and causing mischief!

Get on the Dog and Bone

Good old Cockney rhyming slang, this is perhaps one of the less convoluted and easy to understand rhymes, the ‘dog and bone’ is of course, the telephone!

As you would expect, this phrase is one of the newer additions to the English language, originating in the 1940s as the technology became more widely available and common for the general public to use.

No one is really sure why rhyming slang became a thing, or even why it became so widely spread and common, there are suggestions that it could have started as a game between friends or as a way for locals to conduct business or discussion that non-locals couldn’t understand. It’s even been suggested that it was a tactic used by criminals to confuse the police.

Regardless of how it started, the language is colourful and quite fun, when you understand what is being said, and how it works (especially when the rhymes start getting abbreviated and seem to make no sense at all to someone who doesn’t know the full phrase).

Perhaps not intended at the time, the ‘dog and bone’ can be pretty symbolic for modern telephone usage now – there’s quite a few people out there who love their phones, and eagerly seek them out – much like a dog who’s handed a juicy bone to enjoy!

Having said that, not all bones are good for dogs, and cooked bones should never be fed to your pet – as they may splinted and cause internal injury. If you’re going to give your pup a bone-shaped treat, you can’t go wrong with Plutos Cheese & Lamb Chew, which are especially designed not to splinter and are extra durable!

Are There Other Dog Phrases in Common Use?

Oh yes, there are so many! We’ve only touched on the very tip. You might have noticed that at the beginning of the article, we spoke about being like a ‘dog with two tails’ – this one means to be delighted (if you’ve got a waggy pup, you are already familiar with how mad that tail can get when they’re happy – now imagine that times two!).

There are dog related idioms and metaphors for all situations, we’ve deliberately avoided some of the offensive ones, so if you love dogs, and want to make them part of your language, there’s certainly plenty of phrases to weave into conversation!