Luke Prodromou wonders whether it still rains cats and dogs.

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The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of English Teaching professional magazine.

Anchor Point:1Introduction

Probably one of the most well-known fixed expressions in the world is the saying it’s raining cats and dogs. Its exact origins are lost in the mists of time, but there are several often-quoted theories about where it came from. The first says it originates in old Norse weather lore, in which the cat was associated with rain and the dog with the wind (Oxford Idioms). The second, dating from the 17th century, arose from the fact that many cats and dogs used to drown in floods caused by torrential rainstorms and their bodies were found in the streets afterwards, as if they had fallen from the sky (Terban). The third theory takes us back to the middle ages when houses had thatched roofs. The area just under the roof was the only place for animals to keep warm, so all the dogs, cats and other small animals lived in or on the roof. When it poured with rain, life on the roof became so wet that the animals would sometimes slip and fall off – hence it’s raining cats and dogs.

Anchor Point:2What people don’t say

In spite of its ancient lineage and the special place it occupies in the hearts and minds of learners of English around the world, it’s raining cats and dogs is one of the expressions least used by native speakers. In fact, it is notorious in applied linguistics circles as the epitome of the inappropriate use of idioms by non-native speakers. Lexicographers take great pleasure in reporting its infrequency in real, native-speaker discourse. Michael Rundell reports that in a corpus of 100 million words of ‘authentic’ English, the saying it’s raining cats and dogs fails to appear in its original form at all. Gwyneth Fox has noted the dismay of the COBUILD team while preparing a new corpus-based idioms dictionary for learners, when they discovered that everyone’s favourite idiom about the weather did not appear even once, at least in its classic form, in the huge COBUILD corpus. The editors toyed with the idea of excluding the saying from their idioms dictionary and marketing the product as ‘the first idioms dictionary which does NOT include it’s raining cats and dogs’! In the end, the editorial team got cold feet and included it. The distinction of not including this saying in a learners’ idioms dictionary goes to Longman (1998), whose choice of idioms is based on the British National Corpus and the Internet.

When I turned to the British National Corpus, looking for naturally-occurring examples of it’s raining cats and dogs, I did not find any. What I did find were three examples, none of which was a spontaneous instance of the well-known idiom in its conventional form: one example was from a PhD thesis on collocation, another was in a novel, and the third example was in a children’s joke book: 'Smarty Pants! What must you be careful of when it’s raining cats and dogs?'

However, the expression raining cats and dogs is not completely defunct, even in its complete and classic form. Some months ago, I was chatting to a native speaker of English when it suddenly started to pour with rain and she said the immortal words ‘It’s raining cats and dogs outside’. When I showed surprise, she quickly added, ‘That sounds a bit quaint, doesn’t it? I suppose normally I’d say it’s coming down in stair-rods.’ I am not sure what even my advanced students would make of stair-rods – my data suggest that most people in this context would say it’s pouring with rain, it’s chucking it down, it’s coming down in buckets or a range of taboo expressions (which the reader can look up in a good idioms dictionary!).

Thus, what is popular or well-known amongst students is sometimes rare and unnatural for native speakers – or at least slightly droll. This paradox captures, in a nutshell, the difficulty and delight in trying to learn idioms in a language not your own. It is this paradox and possible ways of getting round it – or bypassing it altogether – which I would like to explore in this article.

Anchor Point:3What students and teachers do say

If you ask your students to give you an example of an English idiom, the one they’re likely to come up with is it’s raining cats and dogs, usually accompanied by giggles. Teachers often say students enjoy learning idioms. Indeed, one reason for their popularity is the pleasure they give to those who use them. The expression it’s raining cats and dogs never fails to raise a laugh or at least a smile amongst students, for some reason, which must have to do with the colourful image that comes to mind when one hears it. This is true of many other idioms such as spill the beans or kick the bucket. The serious pedagogic point behind the laughter, however, is that although English idioms are difficult to teach and acquire, students seem to get a mysterious kick out of trying to learn them.

Apart from the fun factor, one possible explanation for this fascination with idioms is that they open up a window onto the culture of the language and this, paradoxically, may go some way to explaining why they are not easy to acquire.

Anchor Point:4Defining idiomaticity

The mystery of the expression raining cats and dogs contains the mystery of idioms as a whole as they migrate from their natural habitat, the domain of native-speaker English, to that of English as a lingua franca. We should bear in mind that raining cats and dogs is an example of only one type of idiomatic expression in English and belongs to a group which includes other figurative expressions of the proverbial kind: it never rains but it pours, every cloud has a silver lining and so on. However, the importance of idiomaticity in English has less to do with colourful traditional sayings and more to do with the frequency of idiomatic collocations and lexical chunks in everyday conversation and writing; idiomaticity is, in fact, a general phenomenon in all languages and is defined by Cowie and Mackin as ‘a combination of two or more words which function as a unit of meaning’.

These more ordinary collocations have been thoroughly researched in recent years and form the basis of the broadly lexical approach to language teaching championed by Lewis and Willis.

Here are some examples of common idiomatic collocations:

  • phrasal verbs: set off; set up; take back
  • functional expressions: would you like to …? could you tell me the way to …?
  • discourse markers: anyway, I mean; by the way; you know
  • binomials and trinomials: black and white; knife and fork; ladies and gentleman; the good, the bad and the ugly; shake, rattle and roll
  • comparisons: as keen as mustard; as stubborn as a mule
  • collocations: take a nap; make an application; do the shopping; hugely enjoyable

Many of these idiomatic types are unproblematic for the learner, while others, such as the colourful variety I am focusing on here, seem to be particularly resistant to acquisition, although students often like learning about them. It is important, therefore, to avoid generalisation about idioms as if they were all of the same type.

Taken as a whole, idiomaticity in the broad sense accounts for a large part of natural native-speaker discourse. The question I am raising here is what happens when idioms, and particularly the more colourful, figurative varieties, are transferred to the domain of English as a lingua franca? Most people around the world seem to be learning English to communicate not with native speakers, but with other people for whom English is not their mother tongue (though users of English as a native language, ENL, are an important strand in the tapestry of English as an international language). Do idioms facilitate mutual intelligibility in the international arena? What if one of the speakers is idiomatically competent and the other is not? It takes two to tango and what Seidlhofer calls ‘unilateral idiomaticity’ is a common source of communication breakdown in international contexts.

Anchor Point:5The idiomatic minefield

The breakdown may be the result of formal inaccuracy: filled with beans is not the same as full of beans; a storm in a cup of tea is not the same as a storm in a tea-cup and so on. But the real challenge with such idioms comes when one tries to use them in a natural way. It is not enough for learners to know the form of the idiom; they also need to know how it is deployed in discourse. According to McCarthy, native speakers use idioms to:

  • sum up a narrative sequence or anecdote
  • evaluate or comment on something someone has said
  • establish an informal atmosphere and rapport between speakers
  • co-construct the dialogue (one speaker, for example, starts to say an idiom, and the other finishes it)
  • create humour and so on.

If the non-native speaker does not use the idiom accurately and appropriately, it can boomerang badly and cause unwelcome merriment in the listener.

Idioms may not meet the communicative needs of students who use English in international contexts, but they may represent one area of language which lends itself to ‘language play’ and the sheer pleasure of words for their own sake. Students’ wants are as important as their strictly functional needs and we ignore them at our peril. Yet, there are real problems in teaching and acquiring idioms.

A major problem relates to their apparently fixed nature: we are told that idioms are ‘chunks’ and the choice and order of words is difficult to change. Yet, this is exactly what native speakers do all the time: they bend and break the rules of idiomaticity to create special effects. On seeing that it was beginning to drizzle, a native speaker was heard to say ‘It’s raining kittens and puppies’. This ‘playing’ with idioms is not unusual. Indeed, one rarely comes across idioms in their pristine form.

Then there is ellipsis – native speakers know their idioms so well that they often leave parts of them out and let the listener or reader fill in the rest: small world, it never rains, too many cooks, and so on. Native speakers intuitively know how to complete these idiomatic fragments; indeed, ellipsis is a good example of how natural conversation is actively co-constructed by the speakers involved. Even it’s raining cats and dogs can be given a new lease of life if it is ellipted: a few years ago, in a Sainsbury’s supermarket in London they had an advert which read:

Cats and dogs? We provide the umbrellas!

In linguistic terms, the speaker utters parts of an idiom and the listener provides the rest – but is it reasonable to expect this of learners of English?

Anchor Point:6The idiomatic paradox

One is struck by the strange paradoxes arising from the different uses native speakers and non-native speakers make of idioms. On the one hand, the ability to use idioms spontaneously is part of every native speaker’s general phraseological competence and it is what to a large extent accounts for ‘native-like fluency’ (Pawley and Syder, Sinclair). On the other hand, idioms, collocations and prefabricated language in general are exactly what distinguishes even a proficient user of English as a lingua franca from the native speaker. Michael Rundell describes a highly proficient Dutch speaker of English who was indistinguishable, it seems, from a native speaker; the illusion, however, was shattered when she came out with the dreaded cats and dogs. An advanced student once produced the following deviant (or creative) version of the same idiom: my body is full of cats and dogs. If native speakers can make up variations on idioms, why can’t non-native speakers?

Peter Medgyes has also identified idiomaticity as the ‘Great Barrier’ to native-like fluency for non-native speakers:

[highly proficient non-native speakers] have a lower or higher level of idiomaticity than average; some … prefer unmarked forms, refraining from the use of colloquialisms, catch-phrases ... while others tend to be over-idiomatic.

Thus, using idioms appropriately is a question of both quality and quantity.

I have explored some of the reasons why idioms are such a challenge for learners, however advanced they may be, but I have also suggested that in the context of English as a lingua franca, idioms (of the colourful variety) may not only be unnecessary but may also be a potential obstacle to mutual intelligibility.

‘Colourful’ idioms are already rare between one non-native speaker and another. It is perhaps wise for native speakers in international contexts to avoid using idioms that only their fellow native speakers understand. In the classroom, however, it would be a pity to abandon the sheer pleasure of exploring the cultural insights provided by idioms. It would be sensible, I think, from the arguments presented here, to concentrate on receptive understanding of idioms rather than production. Whatever your policy on idioms, I hope I have given you … food for thought.

Anchor Point:7References

Cowie, A. P. & Mackin, R. (eds), 1975. Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiom. OUP.

Fox, G., 2001. Talk on Collocation at Magyar Macmillan Conference Budapest March 2001.

Lewis, M.,  1993. The Lexical Approach LTP Longman Idioms Dictionary. Longman.

McCarthy, M., 1998. Spoken Language and Applied Linguistics. CUP.

Medgyes, P., 1994. The Non-native Teacher. Macmillan.

Toby, J., 2001. Oxford Idioms. OUP.

Pawley, A. & Syder, F. H., 1983. ‘Two puzzles for linguistic theory: native-like selection and native-like fluency’ in Richards, J. C. & Schmidt, R. W. (eds), 1983. Language and Communication. Longman.

Rundell, M., 1995. ‘The word on the street: new insights on spoken English from the British National Corpus’. In, English Today. 11/3. 1995.

Seidlhofer, B., 2001. ‘Towards making ‘Euro-English’ a linguistic reality'. In, English Today. 68. 2001.

Sinclair, J., 1992.  ‘Shared knowledge’. In, Proceedings of the Georgetown University Roundtable in Linguistics and Pedagogy. 1992. The State of the Art Georgetown University Press.

Terban, M., 1996. Dictionary of Idioms. Scholastic.

Willis, D., 1990. The Lexical Syllabus. Collins.


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