Language Matters November 2006: Talking about the Weather

Dear Language Friend,

Get ready, open your umbrellas and put your boots on, our November issue on the WHY, WHAT and HOW of languages will be particularly damp.

WHY does it rain cats and dogs? WHAT are the foreign equivalents for this idiom? HOW do people express their awe at bad weather in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Danish, etc.? Check out the use of weather in common international expressions – be rain-smart and enjoy your reading!

Lenka de Graafova, Managing Director. Thanks for reading.

Talking About Website Launch

Before we immerse ourselves in weather talk, if you are not up to hanging out in the snow or rain and prefer to stay in a heated room, take a minute to visit our newly launched website at:

We have introduced a new design, improved optimization for Google and added new services, such as Language Consulting. One of the user-friendly features includes the service where you can call us directly via Skype from our Contact Us page or chat with us live.

And if you really want to spend more time inside than outside, then check out our Language Courses and Lessons in Vancouver. We currently offer Spanish, French, Polish and Czech language lessons for individuals and small groups. Visit the Language Courses section on for detailed information.

Talking About The Weather

– Have you ever been fined for returning a wet book to the library?
– Have you ever got soaked from the back wheel of your bicycle?
– Do you wonder why glasses wipers are not available to short-sighted citizens?

If not, you probably are no reader, no biker and no correctional lenses user. You might never stick out your nose in the rainy October to February Vancouver. But you most probably talk about it…

Just picture the silence if it did not pour so much – what would people be talking about?

Bad weather and our dismay at it fuel a great part of our daily, dour chats. These small talks are uninformative, do not strain our brains and have a social function: they are the first step to open human contact and, hopefully, to deeper conversations.

Talking About Cats and Dogs

Imagine a class full of eager English learners mesmerized by an English language teacher. The lesson on “what’s the weather like today” is in progress and the students have just been taught the idiom “to rain cats and dogs”. However, they are wondering if the teacher is drugged or merely fooling them. How on earth can you “rain cats and dogs” and what is the origin of this far-fetched saying?!

 Well, one of the theories suggests that “cat” might derive from the Greek word “Catadupe” (“waterfall”). In Northern mythology, the “cat” is purported to have great influence on the weather and the dog to be a signal of wind.

 The explanation is also found in a quotation from Chaloner’s translations of Erasmus “Of Praise of Folly” (1549), that goes: “Rather should we let all the world go to wreck both with dogs and cats”. This indicates that there once existed a popular expression with dogs and cats that meant “completely, utterly”. “Completely” was later linked with an “intensity” of heavy rain and wind in the expression of “to rain cats and dogs”.

The Vancouverites know all about it…

Talking Foreign

Any non-native English speaker may be taken aback by the curious story of cats and dogs pouring from the sky.

You won’t be very surprised to notice that English idioms are also very often linked to Maritime history as in the expression “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” (extremely cold weather). The background to this phrase comes from cannon balls used on warships being kept on a brass metal rack called a monkey. These iron cannon balls shrunk more than the brass in freezing conditions and the balls slipped out of the rack rolling onto the deck of the boat.

Also, black cats were once treated like royalty in the homes of English sailors, who believed that keeping them happy would ensure fair weather when they went to sea. They became so highly priced that only a few sailors could afford them.

It is curious that many other languages also use animals and rather violent tools in their weather expressions and idioms:

Afrikaans: “it rains like old women with knobkerries”

Catalan: “it pours boats and casks”

Czech: “it’s raining wheelbarrows”

Danish: “it’s raining shoemaker apprentices”

Dutch: “it rains pipe stems”

French:  “it rains like a pissing cow”

Japanese: “earth and sand are falling”

Slovak: “tractors are falling”

Spanish: “the octopus is pouring”

Furthermore, halberds are falling in French, pikes in Spanish, ladles in Swedish, knives and forks in Welsh. Haitian Creole has an imaginative way of putting it as “dogs are drinking in their noses”; in Mandarin Chinese, one would say “basin bending, big rain is falling” and in most languages, it rains buckets: in Bulgarian, Croatian, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Serbian.

Talking In Metaphors

Not surprisingly, weather has often been used to express more conceptual truths or feelings. Here are a few examples:

“Every cloud has a silver lining”, with the French equivalent of “Après la pluie, le beau temps” (After the rain comes nice weather), meaning that every time something bad happens, something good will come of it later.

In American English, somebody has to “Ask for a rain check” to postpone an invitation as he cannot accept it at the moment.

“To keep a weather eye on something/someone” is a nautical term meaning to watch something or someone carefully, as they may cause trouble or need help.

Another English expression stipulates “It never rains but it pours” meaning to have many bad things happening in a sequence. That could have been made for Vancouver.

 So if you are feeling under the clouds because of the ever pouring rain, just picture the snow flakes up in Whistler… By the way, this year’s ski season opening welcomes you with excellent powder snow. Why not swap your umbrella and wellies for a woolen touque and skis?

Hit the slopes!