Etymology Excavation: Raining cats and dogs

Etymology Excavation: Raining cats and dogs

‘Raining cats and dogs’ means a very hard rain, or a downpour.

Happily, I haven’t come across any mis-uses of this one – feel free to chip in if you have, my comments section is your comments section – but I hate to think what today’s creatively illiterate might come up with as alternates for it.

There’s a rather nice (but convincingly de-bunked) theory that had it that cats and dogs would shelter in thatched roofs in rainstorms, but if the rain was much more than than a shower, they’d be washed out – hence, heavy rain came to be expressed as ‘raining cats and dogs’. Sadly, as anyone familiar with thatched roofs will realise, thatch is very tight. You won’t fit anything much larger than a beetle in thatch; and while a cat might sun itself on top of a roof, it wouldn’t stay there after more than a couple of drops of rain. Also, the next time I see a dog on a roof of any make will be the first.

A more gruesome, but probably more historically accurate, theory states that due to the poor (read non-existent) drainage prevalent for much of England’s history, smaller domestic animals frequently drowned in very heavy rain, and in the aftermath, their bodies would lie in the roads, giving the appearance of it having literally rained cats and dogs.

There’s also a nice version involving Norse beliefs, cats and dogs having influence over winds and storms, and adoption of the phrase into English. Take your pick.

I’ve seen dates on this one from from the 17th Century to the 19th; I’m inclined to credit the earlier end of the spectrum as thatched roofs became increasingly less common, giving way usually to roof tiles in Britain, the closer to the modern day you get. A gentleman named Jonathan Swift seems to be universally credited with one of its earliest uses in writing, in 1738.

It also seems to be largely a phrase used in British English. I haven’t heard it used in North America, although I suspect it’s been around long enough that most people would understand the basic idea, even if it might sound rather quaintly old-fashioned. My usual favourite source for these posts, Etymonline.com, wasn’t willing to commit to much on this expression.

While this phrase might be tricky to adapt as-is to an SFF world, taking the base idea and running with it would provide some excellent world-building opportunities. Take the mythology angle, and you get the chance to develop a spectrum of creatures with influences over the elements, for example.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: At full tilt

Etymology Excavation: At full tilt

“At full tilt” means flat out, at top speed, as fast as possible. Its origins don’t have anything to do with being unsteady, at an angle, or, indeed poker.

The term derives from the sport of jousting, or tilting (ever heard of ’tilting at windmills’?), and ‘at full tilt’ is believed to have first come into use as an expression in the mid-1600s. Common theories (check out etymonline.com for even more good stuff) are that it comes from either the practice of leaning in to meet the attack when jousting, or, conversely, from tilt or tent, referring to the flimsy barrier that separates the two riders when they joust.

Examples of ‘at full tilt’

I ran down the hill at full tilt.

We’re going to need to work at full tilt to get this done in time.

Is it still in common use? Depends who you ask. I’m a Millennial, and I use it; my parents’ generation certainly did. On the whole, it’s probably more likely to be used in British English than American English.

It’s one of those phrases you can use to hint at a character’s background in contemporary work such as a thriller – maybe your anti-hero is British and gives himself away with it, for example.

If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, you can also adapt this type of expression. If (random example, honest) your invented culture includes people swinging on big metal balls hung from cranes, you’d use ‘at full swing’. (Oddly enough, ‘in full swing’ is another weird English idiom that I probably will be covering on another day.)

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: coming down the pike

Etymology Excavation: coming down the pike

‘Coming down the pike’ can be used to indicate something coming to prominence, up-and-coming, making itself noticed. I’ve also seen it used as a warning phrase, e.g. ‘something big’s coming down the pike – better get ready.’.

A common mistake with this one is ‘coming down the pipe’, which possibly came into being as the word ‘pike’ became less and less common.

Coming down the pikeAccording to Grammarist, usage of the word pike originated in the U.S.A. in the early 19th century, and the earliest known instances of ‘coming down the pike’ appeared around 1900.

However, the word pike, or turnpike, has become increasingly rarer, mostly replaced by ‘toll road’ or ‘highway’ – ‘motorway’ in other English dialects – and so many people have slipped into using ‘pipe’ for ‘pike’, most likely because they know what ‘pipe’ means and are a lot less certain of ‘pike’.

Examples of ‘coming down the pike’:

  • With the budget report out next week, we’re looking at a lot of questions coming down the pike
  • Jim McClaffee is the biggest thing to come down the pike since Bob Dylan!

This phrase is fairly common, although not exactly well-known, and ‘down the pipe’, as mentioned above, is probably its most common misspelling. Pretty much every source that mentioned this phrase indicated it originated in US English, although I have heard it occasionally used in the UK.

This would be a really simple base phrase to adapt to pretty much any fantasy or sci-fi world; after all, everyone has to get from place to place somehow. For example, substitute ‘skyway’ for ‘pike’…and there you are, brand new, relatable idiom.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: strong suit

Etymology Excavation: strong suit

‘Strong suit’ is a phrase meaning a strength, something you are good at. You can easily substitute ‘strong point’ or ‘forte’.

A common mis-spelling is ‘strong suite’, which may have its roots in common terms like ‘Microsoft suite’. It is nonetheless incorrect, however tempting,

My favourite sources are unusually firmly in agreement on the origins of the phrase, and they universally state that it derives from card games, where the suits are hearts, diamonds, aces, and spades.

To be more exact, most of the etymology sources say it originated from the game of bridge. Merriam-Webster and the Online Etymology dictionary disagree on when this phrase came into use: Merriam-Webster holds it was 1742, and Etyonline says 1845. I’m going to go with some considerable time after cards came into common use and before people all got too keen on online games to play cards.

Examples of ‘strong suit’:

  • Patience is not my strong suit
  • He’s playing the long game; it’s his strong suit.

This seems to be a phrase that’s used in pretty much all variants of English, and it could be easily adapted for use in SFF world-building; admittedly, you would need to come up with some basic game concept to root it in first. The concept could equally easily be turned around in the world-building for a game-related phrase meaning a fatal weakness.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

Etymology Excavation: sabotage

Etymology Excavation: sabotage

So, sabotage: what does it mean, and where does it come from?

I wrote a post recently about mercenary troops through the ages, and sabotage (raise your hand if you’re surprised) showed up.

To sabotage something, today, means to damage it, to render it unusable or in need of repairs, or to perform a task so badly as to make it pointless.

Examples of the word in use include:

  • We slashed the tyres to sabotage their transport.
  • The interruption completely sabotaged the flow of the class.

The most direct word origin is a French word, ‘sabot’, which means a wooden shoe, a clog. An expression common in my linguistic background was ‘clog up the works’, in the sense of slowing things down, which is almost certainly related. The term appear to date back to the early 1800s (in French),

Most people who’ve thought about the word ‘sabotage’ have a really alluring theory that it relates to abused French peasants tossing their sabots into the works of their machinery and causing shut-downs. Unfortunately, this has been pretty convincingly de-bunked in terms of actual history (but hang onto the thought for your writing – just because it’s not true here doesn’t mean something similar didn’t happen in your world-building).

The Online Etymology Dictionary and Grammarphobia hold that while there is a link to sabots, the actual reference is to workers moving slowly and clumsily in wooden shoes, and therefore being far less productive than those in leather shoes; industrial action (or inaction), if you will, rather than actual damage.

For another take on the topic of clogs doing some serious damage, check out Jackie Chan in ‘Who Am I?’ fighting with and in clogs.

The origins of the word, in this instance, may be of more interest to writers even than the word itself. As a reader, I find that it’s the small details in world-building that can really make a story click into place for me, and the idea behind sabotage, of a historical item of clothing that so hindered work as to have become proverbial, is something that could be built into almost any civilisation.

What is etymology, and why are you excavating it?

Etymology is like the archeology of a language (definition: the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history).

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