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Is it really raining cats and dogs? The history behind the idioms we use everyday

Illustration by Jonathan Westcott

Do cats and dogs really fall from the rain clouds? How exactly is one saved by the bell? How many American dollars is an arm and a leg worth?

An idiom is a word, or more commonly, a phrase in which the figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning. In the English language alone, there are approximately 25,000 idioms.

Idioms are used by people everyday, to the point where they have come to take on their own meanings as they have evolved over the centuries. It is interesting to see the origins of such funny phrases that we now commonly integrate to symbolize harmless fun. However, several idioms have dark origins.

It’s time to dig up the ancestry of the phrases we’ve come to love so much. 

Term: It’s raining cats and dogs.

Meaning: It’s raining really hard. 

We’ve probably all heard this one if the rain seemed to be coming down relentlessly outside, but sorry cat and dog lovers, this one may be a bit gruesome for you.

In England in the 1500s, the roofs consisted of only straw with no wood underneath. Sometimes this was the only place for small animals such—as cats and dogs—would climb up there to get warm and sleep. However, when it rained really hard some of the animals would slip off the roofs and wash into the gutters, hence the term “it’s raining cats and dogs.”

Term: Rat race.

Meaning: An endless pursuit. 

No, rats do not actually run in this type of rat race. This idiom originated as an analogy to the modern city, as many citizens can be seen spending a lot of effort doing various tasks that don’t seem to be meaningful or significant.

This is similar to rats in a maze in a science laboratory, chasing around a single piece of cheese to no avail. Often used in reference to the work force, one may escape the “rat race” through retirement, changing jobs or working from home.

Term: Saved by the bell.

Meaning: Saved at the last instant from something undesirable.

Have you ever heard someone say they were “saved by the bell?” Well, this commonly means they were saved by something at the last possible instant, but historically, this idiom has ominous roots. This idiom also originated in England, although this one might be more of a legend than a fact, but you never know. Because England is rather small, they began to run out of places to bury people.

So, whoever worked the “graveyard shift” would often go back through graves and dig up the bones and take them to the bone house. However, about one in twenty-five coffins had scrape marks on the inside, indicating the person had been buried alive. Thus, they began placing a string on the deceased’s wrist tied to an above-ground bell so they could ring it if they happened to be buried alive, hence the term “saved by the bell.”

Term: An arm and a leg.

Meaning: Extremely expensive.

If you were shopping for a Coach purse, your friend might check the price tag on a certain one and remark, “That’s going to cost you an arm and a leg.” The origin of this idiom dates back to George Washington’s time.

Since there were no cameras around, portraits were done either through paintings or sculptures. If you look at any pictures from this era, you may notice many of them are simply of the face or the limbs are covered up by something else in the painting. It is said that paintings cost more when limbs were shown, hence the phrase, it will cost you “an arm and a leg.”

So, the next time you find yourself using an idiom in your speech, beware­—you might be implying a bit more than you imagine.