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10 Dog and Cat Animal Idioms (and Their Intriguing Origins)

Even if you’re not the type who speaks in riddles, rhymes and idioms, you’re surely aware of some of the fun animal phrases kicking around the English language. What’s even more fun is the origin of some of these expressions, which are outlined below.

#1 Raining Cats and Dogs 

  • Meaning: Raining extremely hard
  • Origin: Dead dogs and cats on filthy London streets

rain cats and dogs

The most likely origin behind this phrase dates back to 17th and 18th century England, when heavy rains would create mini-rivers down the filthy streets, carrying along any debris that had been piling up along the roadsides and gutters. Some of that debris, alas, consisted of dead dogs and cats. 

#2 Dog Days of Summer

  • Meaning: Unbearably scorching summer days
  • Origin: The dog star of Sirius

dog days cartoon

The dog in this phrase doesn’t refer to your four-legged pal, but rather the dog star of Sirius. As part of the Canis Major constellation, Sirius is the most visible and brightest star in our hemisphere during summer months. The star’s name derives from the Greek “seirios,” which translates to “scorching.”

#3 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

  • Meaning: Restless, jumpy
  • Origin: 14th century saying “as nimble as a cat on haite backstane”

cat tin roof

Even if Tennessee Williams immediately comes to mind when you hear this phrase, he’s not the guy who originally came up with it. The origins can be traced back to the 1300s, with the original incarnation of the phrase putting the jumpy cat on “haite backstane,” or “hot bakestone.”

A bakestone was a big stone on which bread and oatcakes were baked. When bakestones eventually fell out of vogue and tin roofs fell in, the phrase mutated accordingly.

#4 Cat Got Your Tongue

  • Meaning: Silent, at a loss for words
  • Origins: Silence of whipped victims or liars who had their tongues cut out

cat got tongue

Two possible meanings stand behind this phrase. One stems from the cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip used by the British navy. The massive pain that came from being flogged would cause the victims to be silent for quite some time.

The other, more adorable theory says the phrase stems from a practice in ancient Egypt, where the tongues of liars and blasphemers were supposedly carved out of their mouths and fed to the cats.

#5 Every Dog Has Its Day

  • Meaning: You’ll get your moment
  • Origin: Adage from the 1500s

dog has day

Shakespeare uses the well-known phrase in “Hamlet,” while Andy Warhol modernized it by saying everyone will get his or her 15 minutes of fame. Neither one, however, came up with the adage, which dates as far back as the 1500s. Just in case you feel like running to the library, you can find the older rendition of the phrase, “A dogge hath a day,” in the second edition of “Erasmus’ Adages” published in 1545.

#6 Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

  • Meaning: Leave things alone, especially if they can stir up trouble
  • Origin: The Bible (no kidding!)

sleeping dogs lie

You can trace this common-sense phrase all the way back to the Bible’s Book of Proverbs (26:17). The original phrase noted that anyone who sticks his nose into things that are none of his business and can cause him trouble “is like one that takes a dog by the ears.”

You’ll find variations from the 1300s on up. They range from the Latin proverb “Quieta non movere” (Do not move settled things) to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “It is nought good a sleepyng hound to wake.”

#7 Let The Cat Out of The Bag

  • Meaning: To spill the beans, or reveal a secret
  • Origins: Swapping a cat for a pig, getting whipped in the British navy

cat out of bag

You get multiple choice for the origins of this phrase. One theory says it comes from old time marketplaces where people would sell pigs in bags (which also happens to be the origin of “pig in a poke,” by the way).

Unscrupulous vendors, however, would grab a feral cat off the street and substitute it for the more expensive pig. The buyer would be told not to open the bag until he got home so the pig wouldn’t escape. But it was really so he wouldn’t find out he had been scammed.

The other theory goes back to British navy’s painful cat-o’-nine-tails whip, which was kept in a bag to protect it from the elements. When sailors misbehaved, you can be the cat was coming out the bag.

#8 Doggie Bag

  • Meaning: Restaurant container for leftovers
  • Origin: Ancient Roman practice of taking food home wrapped in napkins

doggie bag

While the practice can be traced back to the 6th century BC, the modern US version of the doggie bag came into play in the 1940s. Food shortages were a way of life during World War II, and folks were encouraged to feed table scraps to their pets.

But restaurants didn’t offer any way to bring those table scraps home – until a San Francisco café started offering Pet Pakits and Seattle hotels provided “Bones for Bowser” wax paper bags. The trend continued, with the doggie bags eventually morphing into a way to bring home food for either canine or human consumption.

#9 Cat’s Pajamas

  • Meaning: Excellent, the best, neat-o-keen
  • Origin: Nonsense phrase of 1920s

cat pajamas

This term was one on a long list of nonsensical, silly phrases invented during the 1920s, when flappers were hot and it was even hotter to combine some type of animal with either human clothing or a human body part. Bee’s knees, clam’s garters and gnat’s elbow were a few others on this extensive list.

Cat’s pajamas followed the format, but it also did double duty of mentioning a relatively new form of sleepwear. Pajamas were still considered somewhat risqué for young ladies, who were previously found in stodgy old nightgowns.

#10 Gone to The Dogs

  • Meaning: Going to pot, decreasing in quality
  • Origin: Being cast out of town in ancient China

gone to dogs

Ancient China had a setup that didn’t allow dogs within city walls. The dogs instead had to fend for themselves, roaming around eating garbage and whatever else they could find outside the city proper. Social outcasts and criminals were kicked out of town, as well, and had literally “gone to the dogs.”

Know any clever animal idioms? We’d love to read them in the comments.

  • Marylean Baroi

    Thanks For this post.Very informative.My mother tongue is Bengali. I am trying to learn english .and this post helped me a lot.Thanks again

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