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S1E2 - Pet Precipitation & Scientific Metaphors

References & Transcript


- Metaphorigins Instagram Page -
- US Library of Congress - Article -
- Raining Animals - US Library of Congress - Article -
- Snopes Fake Theory - Article -
- Anatoly Liberman - Oxford University Press - Article -
- CellPress Trends in Ecology and Evolution - Scientific Article -

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To my incredible family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the second episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

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Okay. So this episode is about a classic expression that you’ve most definitely heard before. Picture this: you’re a young child and it’s the weekend. You and your buddies planned to go out to the park and pass around the old shuttlecock, or head down to the main square for a thrilling game of wits and strategy, like chess or backgammon. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that you are a boy in the 17th century.

Anyway, lets choose the latter. You and the boys are sitting beside the Bronze Mayor Statue. It’s a dark and dreary day. You’re not sure if its going to rain or its just normal pollution.

You feel a droplet ploop! onto your forehead after looking up at what you realize now is a storm cloud. You look at your buddy across the chess board and he says “Well, well, well, looks like a storm be comin’”

You hear more droplets fall on your top hat. So you and the boys pack of your boards and head to the nearest shopkeep, skipping over piles of rubbish along the way (which there are a lot of). The shop is owned by the oldest man in town, a 40 year old bookseller.

As you enter, the rain plummets to the ground in a raging storm.

“I told you a storm be comin’” says your repetitive friend.

Then the shopkeep says, “Yes, it’s raining cats and dogs!”

You and the boys all turn to each other and ask in unison, “What did the crazy elderly man just say?”

“It’s raining cats and dogs,” he says, “look.”

And you all turn to the window and see a bunch of fat tabbies and bulldogs crashing to the ground and….

Obviously that doesn’t actually happen. But that expression is such a timeless one that I can’t even seem to recall the first time I heard it. No one even really says it anymore, but it’s understanding seems universal. It also makes no sense, really, why would heavy rain be compared to our feline and canine pals?

What is the origin of the expression “It’s raining cats and dogs”?

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Most of this information was obtained from sources like the US Library of Congress and the Oxford University Press. All articles will be mentioned in the description.

The odd thing about this expression, and something I should mention from the get-go, is that no one really knows its origin. Most sources say it originates from England during the 1600s. The same sources suggest that it may have originated from Spain, Greece, or even Norse mythology. And the story behind it also varies. One thing that was agreed upon was that it has no relation to the actual phenomenon of raining animals. These incidences were recorded in multiple places around the world, like Singapore, Sweden and Italy, which have been theorized to occur due to tornadoes or waterspouts during heavy rain.

But let’s go back to our example in the 17th century. It was first recorded by a British Poet named Henry Vaughan, within his collection of work Olor Iscanus, where he suggested that a roof was so secure it would protect against “dogs and cats rained in shower”.

In the following year, an English playwright by the name of Richard Brome, wrote in a comedy titled City Witt that “It shall rain dogs and polecats”. Polecats are not cats, but related to weasels which were common in Britain through to the end of the 19th century. At this time, polecats were a nuisance, preying on chickens in poultry farms. They were completely eliminated from England but migrated to Wales and surrounding European nations.

Then, in 1738, a man by the name of Jonathan Swift published a collection of fictional conversations with upper class citizens. He was a satirist, essayist, poet, cleric, and a political pamphleteer for the Whig and Tories parties of Britain. It was a profession in that time to hand out informative pamphlets for political parties, which are now usually volunteer roles. Anyway, one of his characters of his “Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation” mentions he is afraid that it will “rain cats and dogs”.

Swift also alluded to the idiom in a poem called City Shower, describing how floods from torrential rainfall left dead animals on the streets. There were a lot of stray animals during this period, roaming cities piled with garbage due to the lack of waste removal and sanitary systems.

Other similar phrases were used during this time. “It’s raining pitchforks”. “It’s raining stair-rods”. These expressions were recorded by other British writers but did not leave an impression on readers as much as Swift’s phrase did, and just never caught on. This, I think, is a neat example as to how powerful a particular expression could be over less imaginative language.

Etymologists, those whose career is to study the origin of words (freakin’ awesome by the way), have suggested other theories on its origin. Odin, the Norse God of Storms, witches. all were depicted with animals like wolves and black cats during wind and rain storms.

The expression may have also came from the Greek expression kata doksa, meaning “contrary to experience or belief”. Like, “Hey man, you will not believe how hard it’s raining outside!”. Also borrowed from Greek was the old English word catadupe, or Catadupa in Latin, meaning waterfall. Like, “Hey man, its raining so hard its like a waterfall outside! Except like, all over the place!”

There’s even a fake theory for the origin of this expression. Circulated in an email chain back in 1999, was the explanation that stray animals would crawl into thatched roofs (or roofs built by some sort of vegetation) to seek shelter during storms and be washed away due to the heavy rain. This has been debunked since these slanted roofs were meant to keep rain from entering the building, and would only make sense if the animals were on the outside of the roof. No species of animal that has survived the test of natural selection would make this mistake.

And that settles it then, many plausible theories to which we have no consensus on.

Not so fast. I can’t end this episode without the critical commentary of the literary critic and spelling reformist Anatoly Liberman. In his article on the Oxford University Press, regarding this expression, he heavily questions the bases for these theories.

Let’s start with Norse mythology. Odin is NOT the god of storms. He is associated to many things, like wisdom, healing, death, war, battle, even poetry, but not storms. That association goes to Thor. Cats association with Witches have nothing to do with storms. Also, it would have to be a combination of the two very different ideas to create the phrase, as one would only reference dogs and the other would only reference cats.

Then we get to the Greek origins, Kata doksa and catadupe. Neither translated into English in a similar sounding manner, and therefore is likely not the origin of reference for the English idiom.

He gets to Jonathon Swift and mentions that he may have knew of the phrase before he mentions it in his literary works. Though it is difficult to rule him out as the one who coined and popularized the phrase. He makes no mention of the other English artists Richard Brome and Henry Vaughan.

At the end, Liberman notes the work of N. E. Toke who, in his 1918 work Notes and Queries, mentions a sentence by an english writer named G. Harvey that says: “Instead of thunderbolts shooteth nothing but dogboltes or catboltes”. These dogboltes and catboltes were actual terms for iron bolts securing doors, gates and pieces of timber. Disregarding if this was one of the oldest puns ever recorded, people could have compared heavy precipitation to the fall of iron bolts from the sky, as evidenced to the use of the word thunderbolts preceding the two words. If you take the full version of the idiom, which was “Its raining cats, dogs and pitchforks”, perhaps these metallic instruments were the true meaning and the original phrase was “Its raining catboltes, dogboltes and pitchforks” before being shortened to what is is today.

And that, everyone, is what seems to be the most credible origin story to, “It’s raining cats and dogs”. A long windy road of theories and debunked myths, but we got there. And we’re better off now.

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As mentioned in the previous episode, I think I’ll end each podcast with a brief note about something scientific. I will for sure have whole episodes dedicated to specific topics of science and science communication. But for today, I would like to speak about this 2019 scientific article in the journal of Trends in Ecology and Evolution titled: “A User’s Guide to Metaphors in Ecology and Evolution”. The link will be in the description.

This will be an example of going through a scientific article from the perspective of someone with a science background. By reading this article, I admit I have travelled into territory to which I am no expert in, as I am a biochemist or microbiologist by training. But the great thing about scientific research is that published articles generally have the same format: an introduction, a results section and discussion of said results. Think of it like a general story, the authors give the background (the introduction), the rising action and juicy bits of the story (results), and the consequences of rising action (discussion of the results regarding the bigger picture and an overall conclusion).

This article essentially encompasses the entire purpose of this podcast: metaphor and science communication. Now that’s some odds. The purpose for writing the article is simple: should scientists use metaphor and imagery when discussing complex topics? Things like adaptive radiation, phylogenetic trees, genetic blueprint, and my personal favourite, moonlighting proteins… all evoke a particular mental response that drives the brain to understand, or misunderstand, an idea. There’s also a section title: “Eating scientific cake and having it too”. Love. It.

Anyway, the authors go on and say that there are two sides to the usage of metaphors in scientific rhetoric, at least the field of biology. First, metaphors are powerful tools that “are the main vehicles for communicating science to non-scientists”. They “provide novel insights” into the field in question, sparking innovative pondering over a potentially complex question. In their words, they are “guides to discovery”, as their expressiveness means they “are not simply verbal models but cognitive tools that evoke thinking about possible attributes and relations of novel entities or phenomena”. Take the term “genetic blueprint”, a metaphor that means there is commonality in the genetics that make you and all other human beings, like the nucleic acids that make DNA, and even sometimes the sequence in which they are found in our cells. But, it by no means contains all the information required to develop the later you, the you of 10 years old, the you of a teenager, a young adult or the you at retirement age.

Metaphors are also up for interpretation. Their vagueness often leads to collaboration around research groups, and ties ideas together that fit the bigger picture. Now, as great as that sounds, the authors take a confusing turn and state that it’s vagueness creates a downfall, in that scientists who cannot identify when a term is being used metaphorically, “start talking past one another while also arguing about the correct definition of the term where none exists.”

Other pitfalls come to light. The usage of metaphors often highlights specific features of an idea while hiding others, shrouding information that might be important to fully understand the idea. Take the term, “tree of life”, a metaphor showing a visual representation of common ancestry between species, biological patterns and potential relationships between those patterns. What it shrouds is the true complexity of life; horizontal gene transfer, symbiogenesis, these sub-categories all hidden in the general metaphor of this tree.

Moreover, reification, or the treatment “of an imaginary construct as though it were real”, is also an issue that arises in scientific metaphors. Without realizing that a metaphor is simply a way of describing nature, rather than a quantifiable value, scientists misrepresent the power of a good scientific metaphor.

So what do we do? Do we get rid of metaphor in scientific language and be as clear and direct as possible? Do we only use metaphor when speaking to non-scientists, helping the public manifest a general idea of the topic in question?

From my perspective, it seems that the gains of using metaphor in scientific language greatly outweigh the costs. Metaphors are simpler, innovative, and most importantly, relatable. Although the public might not understand the the structure of DNA, it is useful to describe it as a “twisting ladder”, and further allude to the real term of a “double helix”. Sure, you hide the components of the rungs which are the nucleic acids bound together by a certain number of hydrogen bonds, while the side rails are the sugar-phosphate backbones of the molecule. Why is it twisted? Well you’ve given the listener enough information so that if they are interested (which they must be if they have further questions), they can collect more information based on your metaphor.

I’ve realized that at times, despite how interesting nature itself is, the way science has described it has stripped the notion of all interesting value. And in the end, are scientists not conducting fascinating research about a larger idea that captivates government, industry and public personnel alike, framing discourse to better our society?

Just think about it.

For those who want to read the article, I will have a link to the paper in the description.

Thanks for listening to this episode of… Metaphorigins. Remember to subscribe for more episodes and to follow the podcast on Instagram to be entered into the draw for that beautiful custom made mug. Until next time, stay skeptical but curious.

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