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In English, we say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” Explanations for why we say this are numerous, and all fairly dubious. In other lands, other stuff falls from the sky during heavy storms. In Croatia, axes; in Bosnia, crowbars (I’m sensing a pattern here); in France and Sweden, nails. In several countries, heavy rain falls like pestle onto mortar. In English, it may also rain like pitchforks or darning needles. While idioms describing heavy rain as the piss from some great creature (a cow or a god) may not be surprising, a few idioms kick it up a notch (so to speak), describing the rain as falling dung.
And then there are the old ladies falling out of skies. Sometimes with sticks, sometimes without. Sometimes old ladies beaten with ugly sticks. The Flemish say, het regent oude wijven — it’s raining old women. The Afrikaners, more savagely, arm the old women with clubs: ou vrouens met knopkieries reën. Yes, good ol’ knobkerries — ugly sticks, indeed! Afrikaners and the Flemish speak variants of Dutch, so it’s not surprising they share cataracts of crones, armed or not. Why the Welsh also share them is more of a mystery, but yn’ Gymraeg, again we find old ladies raining with sticks: mae hi’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn. Traveling to Norway, we find the outpouring of old ladies beaten with the ugly sticks: det regner trollkjerringer — it’s raining she-trolls.
Why old ladies? Why cobblers’ apprentices, as in the Danish idiom, det regner skomagerdrenge? Expressions describing small reptiles and amphibians raining from the sky (toads, snakes, lizards) arguably have a physical basis. While skeptics say it’s impossible for these animals to actually fall from the sky, animals have been known to swarm in times of heavy rain:
Storms of frogs and fish falling from the sky! For at least 200 years, newspapers and books have published accounts of people being pelted by huge numbers of frogs and fish coming down during rainstorms, or even sometimes out of a clear blue sky.
In 1901, a rainstorm in Minneapolis, MN produced frogs to a depth of several inches, so that travel was said to be impossible. Fish famously fell from the sky in Singapore in 1861, and again over a century later in Ipswich, Australia in 1989. Residents in southern Greece awoke one morning in 1981 to find that a shower of frogs had blanketed their village. Golfers in Bournemouth, England found herring all over their course after a light shower in 1948. In 1901, a huge rainstorm doused Tiller’s Ferry, SC, and covered it with catfish as well as water, to the point that fish were found swimming between the rows of a cotton field. In 1953, Leicester, MA was hit with a downpour of frogs and toads of all sorts, even choking the rain gutters on the roofs of houses. The stories go on and on: More frogs in Missouri in 1873 and Sheffield, England in 1995, and more fish in Alabama in 1956.
A popular theory is that these animals are picked up by waterspouts, then transported en masse, until they fall, unharmed. How a waterspout would do this without scattering or pulverizing its passengers is something of a mystery, so perhaps the more plausible explanation is animal swarms coinciding with heavy rains. In a heavy-enough rain, even fish may swarm on what would otherwise be dry land.
The Flemish sometimes also say it rains young cats (het regent kattenjongen). The German, young dogs (Es regnet junge Hunde). Somehow, we got both. Cats spit and hiss. Dogs howl. A good storm does all three. My theory — worth about as much as Anne Elk’s brontosaurus theory, but perhaps no less than other theories proposed for our idiom over the years — is that, much as English is a mongrel language, our idiom for rain is a mongrel idiom, the progeny of likening a hard rain to cats on the one hand, and dogs on the other.
Finland and Estonia’s idioms are even more mysterious. In Estonia, they say, sajab nagu oavarrest — it’s raining like from a beanstalk. In Finland, Sataa kuin Esterin perseestä — it’s raining like from Esther’s, um, fanny. The Wiktionary speculates,
Urban legend has it that “Esteri” was the Goddess of rain in pre-Christian Finland, but that’s naturally false, as the name is of Biblical origin. [It’s the Finnish form of “Esther”.]
One possible source of the saying is the Esteri-branded water pumps used by firebrigades.
The Esteri fire pump (palopumppu) is still a going concern, produced by Veikko Nummela Oy (Finnish quality and reliability!). You can ogle the beauties here, if you like. Does their comeliness surpass that of other pumps, as Esther’s did of her rivals? Perhaps. Although perhaps you have to be a fireman to see it.