raining cats and dogs

black-and-white photo of women hurrying across a street in rain

Women run from the shelter of Flinders Street Railway Station across the flooded streets, 1954. Photograph held in the Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Public domain.

After days of hot and humid weather, finally, came the rain … Plenty of it. Which made me pause and wonder when cats and dogs came into the picture.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the phrase ‘to rain cats and dogs’ back to 1738, when Jonathan Swift uses it in A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation. This is an ironic and satirical observation on the ‘art’ of conversation in certain circles of society, jokingly conceived as three handy dialogues that those lacking the ‘art’ can simply memorise. You would think that the language in a work like this would be well-established.

An older phrase, ‘to rain dogs and cats’, can — still according to the Oxford English Dictionary — be dated back to 1661.

Why cats and dogs? No-one knows.

a book with a green cover

painting of a woman in red-and-white dress sitting in front of a window reading a green book

Woman reading (1913) by Rik Wouters. Painting held in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerpen, Belgium. Public domain.

I used to work in a bookshop. One day, a young woman came in and said, ‘I’m looking for a book with a green cover …’. She knew neither author nor title.

At another occasion, in another bookshop, a regular customer came past one day and said, ‘I’m looking for a book’. She paused — and I said, ‘You’re in the right place’. She laughed.


to and fro

black-and-white photo of three men on the deck of a ship

Three men standing on deck of the Liguria, en route to Australia, 1951. Photograph held at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Public domain.

Some self-appointed grammarians appear to have created a ‘rule’ that is confusing confused people even further. The ‘rule’ — I have been told twice in the last month — is that the verb emigrate always goes with the preposition from, whereas the verb immigrate always goes with the preposition to. As if these are verb–preposition collocations … They are not.

I don’t know where this ‘rule’ comes from. I had never heard of it before. After a brief search online I found this clear, black-and-white explanation that made me scratch my head:

First, the author gives two correct examples that comfortably use both from and to with either verb, blithely contradicting the ‘rule’ they’re supposed to illustrate.

He emigrated from Russia to America.
He immigrated to America from Russia.

Then, the author gives two examples that are ‘incorrect’. These sentences are copies of the correct examples, except for some information that is left out …

He emigrated from Russia to America.
He immigrated to America from Russia.

Leaving out information does not necessarily make these sentences incorrect. We leave out information all the time when we deem it to be understood (because it’s been mentioned before, or because it is general knowledge) — it is called ellipsis. So, assuming the reader knows Isaac Asimov is an American author who was born in Russia, either of the following sentences is perfectly correct.

Isaac Asimov’s family emigrated to America when he was three years old.
Isaac Asimov’s family immigrated from Russia when he was three years old.

black-and-white photo showing two women with their backs to the camera looking at a signpost on a country road

Mrs. Czeslawa Galaska and a friend, near the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre, 1950. Photograph held at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Public domain.

Like come and go, emigrate and immigrate are verbs of motion and involve a source and a goal, either explicitly or implicitly, which is why we can use either from and to (or both, or neither) with these verbs. If you know that the Asimov family was Russian, it is understood that their migration would have started in Russia. If you know that Isaac Asimov was an American author, it is understood that the family’s migration ended in the USA.

So, there is no ‘rule’ about which prepositions these verbs take …

What can be confusing is whether to use the verb emigrate or the verb immigrate. This depends on whether the focus of the text in which the sentence sits is on the starting point or source of the migration, in which case you would use emigrate (e- from the Latin ex: out of, from), or on the endpoint or goal of the migration, in which case you would use immigrate (im– from the Latin in: into). However, sometimes that focus is not that clear-cut …

Of course, you could also use migrate, or move!

stages of reading


Woman reading (1940) by Chaïm Soutine. Painting held in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France. Public domain.

Soutine_Woman reading_1937

Woman reading (c. 1937) by Chaïm Soutine. Painting held in a private collection. Public domain.

Soutine woman asleep over book 1937

Woman asleep with a book (c. 1937) by Chaïm Soutine. Painting held in a private collection. Public domain.

editor at work

I’ve been busy! But I took some time out to look for an image of an editor at work so I could at least post that … and I happened upon this one. Not a woman, not behind a computer, not even wearing glasses, but hey …

man with beard bent over desk full of papers working in lamplight

Félix Fénéon at La Revue Blanche (1896) by Félix Vallotton. Public domain.

black-and-white photo of Felix Feneon

Félix Fénéon, c. 1900. Public domain.

‘He’ turned out to be more interesting than I imagined. ‘He’ is Félix Fénéon, an editor, a translator, a journalist, an author, an art critic, an art gallery director, and whatnot … After his stint as (eventually) editor-in-chief at La Revue Blanche, an art and literature magazine, he worked for some time at a Parisian newspaper, Le Matin, where from May until November 1906 it was his task to write short ‘news fillers’, des nouvelles en trois lignes (aka ‘the news in three lines’). He acquitted himself of his task with such style that his nouvelles have been compared to haiku.

« Si mon candidat échoue, je me tue », avait déclaré M. Bellavoine, de Fresquienne (Seine-Inférieure). Il s’est tué.

‘If my candidate loses, I will kill myself,’ M. Bellavoine, of Fresquienne, Seine-Inférieure, had declared. He killed himself.

They were printed without a by-line at the time, and when it was suggested to him they should be published as a book, apparently, he replied angrily, ‘I aspire only to silence.’ They were, however, posthumously published and, more recently, even translated and published in English. In my opinion, the author’s wit and style get lost a bit in translation.

painting of man bent over desk, writing

At the Revue Blanche (Portrait of Félix Fénéon) (1901) by Édouard Vuillard. Painting held in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, USA. Public domain.



wildeman op eenhoorn_RP-P-OB-915r

Wild man riding a unicorn (c. 1473–77) by the Meester van het Amsterdamse Kabinet. Print held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Public domain.

I think the difference between the ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ conditional is becoming fuzzy. At least on television. Or maybe it’s just one scriptwriter …

I watch one soap almost daily to delete my RAM. (If you’d ever read a page from the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, you’d understand …) And I hear it too frequently for it to be a coincidence …

Recently, a young character said to his screen mother something along the lines of:

*If I knew it was him, I would have told you.

He was feeling guilty because a friend had told him she was seeing someone older but she hadn’t revealed who or how much older, and this older person had got her into trouble with the police. He should have said:

If I had known it was him, I would have told you.

Unreal — that’s the difference. The youngster’s ‘knowing’ was an unreal past event, a thing in the past that didn’t actually happen.

When we talk about a real situation in a conditional clause (if-clause), we use tenses in the same way as we do in clauses with other conjunctions: present to express present, past to express past, and, like in clauses with other conjunctions, the present tense is also used to express the future.

If temperatures fall below zero, water turns into ice. (real present)

If I find out who he is, I will tell you. (real future)

If you found out who he was, why didn’t you tell me? (real past)


Unicorn (1658). This woodcut is an illustration from the book The history of four-footed beasts and serpents … by Edward Topsell, printed in London in 1658. Public domain.

When we talk about an unreal situation, unlikely to happen, untrue, or imaginary, we use tenses in a different way, in order to distance what we say from reality. In the conditional clause, we use past tenses even when we are talking about the present or the future, and in the main clause we use the modal verb would.

If I knew it was him, I would tell you. (unreal present)

If I ever found out who he was, I would tell you. (unreal future)

If I had known it was him, I would have told you. (unreal past)