by Helen Xia, CHS Student Writer

When scouring the internet for topics to write about, there’s one lesson I’ve learned: There are what seems to be an infinite number of niche holidays. From National Onion Ring Day to Lemon Month—yes, June is the month for this versatile sour citrus—it’s always a surprise when I discover these quirky celebrations. (To me, this is good news because it means I will never run out of things to write about.)

Another one of these festivities occurs on June 1: National Say Something Nice Day. This day is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a day designed to spread kind words and uplift spirits! It’s the perfect day to call somebody “the icing on the cake” or “a smart cookie.”

Wait—those sayings are far from literal, but you understood what I meant, right? That’s the power of idioms, but where did these distinguished sayings originate?

Idioms are embedded into our day-to-day speech patterns. Namely, when going through the (sometimes painful) procedure of sustaining small talk, one of our first reactions may be to judge the weather.

“Nice weather we’re having!” One may remark, hoping to rouse a more meaningful exchange. If it’s not a cloud-free day, one may groan, “I’ve had enough of this dreary weather. It’s raining cats and dogs outside. Stay dry out there.”

Speaking of rain—and famed English idioms—why do people say it’s raining cats and dogs outside to convey heavy downpours?

You’d be pleased to know that the Library of Congress answers this inquiry directly: “We don’t know.” It’s uncertain where precisely this phrase comes from, but there are a few amusing possibilities. For instance, a popular theory is that, in 1500s England, house roofs were constructed with straw. This made it an excellent home for small animals like cats and dogs and a not-so-excellent functional roof. These animals would tumble from the roof into the house upon heavy rainfall, hence the raining cats and dogs.

The first recorded usage of the expression can be traced back to Henry Vaughan, a British poet who mentioned that a roof was secure against “dogs and cats rained in shower.”

In Richard Brome’s City Witt, a comparable term emerged once more, where he declared, “It shall rain dogs and polecats.” With that being said, it’s generally accepted that the saying didn’t reach the common vernacular until Jonathan Swift used it in his satirical literary collection, mocking aristocratic conversations. One of his characters cited “rain[ing] cats and dogs” as one of his or her fears. Additionally, Swift wrote a poem named “City Shower,” which detailed how streets flooded after sustaining heavy rain. These floods left deceased animals scattered on said streets, which may have also contributed to “raining cats and dogs”—this context more bleak than the other prepositions.

Now, assuming the dogs survived these calamities, what would they do? Scavenge for food? Sniff around for their friends? Bark?

On the topic of barking, let’s discuss another well-known idiom: barking up the wrong tree. If someone barks up the wrong tree, they are mistaken about how to accomplish something and, consequently, follow the wrong course of action. Fortunately, this saying has a more tangible origin than “raining cats and dogs.” Presumably, “barking up the wrong tree” dates back to early 1800s America, and it was initially a logical statement: Prey would fool hunting dogs into believing that they were still in trees after they escaped. Dogs would, literally, bark at fruitless trees. Hopefully, we can finish this month with a bang and avoid expanding our energy in this useless manner—knock on wood!

Knock on wood? Why? To continue to avoid misfortune, some people knock on wood as a way to, ideally, uphold their good luck. Many claim that this eccentric practice stemmed from pagan cultures, whose practitioners believed that spirits and higher powers inhabited trees; therefore, tapping on tree trunks could be interpreted as seeking these powers’ luck and protection. On the other hand, Christians have translated this act into a reference to the wood of the cross of Jesus’ crucifixion. Despite these elaborations, like much of common parlance, there is no definitive answer for how this began. At this point, centuries down the road, we can merely speculate.

With something as customary and communicative as language, it’s the perfect outlet to think outside the box, and, evidently, people have done just that and left their influences on our everyday speech. Keep an eye out for these things in the future—linguistics can be a fascinating subject to ponder!

Oh, and let’s strive to practice National Say Something Nice Day every day. The Golden Rule is golden for a reason.

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