“Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative,” said Oscar Wilde, which is a fairly damning indictment of all of us. Weather is a universal subject. Whether you’re in Singapore, Stockholm, or Sydney, commenting on the elements is a fairly safe way to start a conversation.
Weather idioms are a rich part of all languages. They reflect both cultural attitudes and climate patterns, so you’ll probably hear more snow-related idioms in the northern European countries than, say, in Indonesia. Sometimes echoes emerge across cultural lines — Dutch, German, English and Scandinavian languages tend to have similar weather idioms — but others are a little more quirky, like the Turkish saying, “Don’t go into the water unless the watermelon skin has fallen into the sea,” karpuz kabuğu denize düşmeden suya girilmez.
A brief word on that most awful of weather clichés, it’s raining cats and dogs. Theories abound about its origin. Is it a reference to Odin (Norse god of thunder, associated with dogs) and witches (associated with cats)? Could it be that heavy rain washed cats and dogs from where they were sheltered in the thatched roofs? Perhaps a corruption of the archaic French word catadoupe, meaning waterfall? Or did Jonathan Swift coin the expression in a poem in 1710? Nobody knows, but it’s a great way to bore people at a party. Only one thing is certain — if you’re a non-native English speaker who was taught this in high school, do not use it. Ever. Nobody does, and it’s one of those unfortunate phrases that will just make you sound silly.
Instead, why not borrow liberally from the French and say, il pleut comme vache qui pisse, “it’s raining like a pissing cow”? Or try the Portuguese variant, chover canivete, literally “raining pocket knives.” This is often used for emphasis, to say that somebody won’t do something nem que chova canivete, “even if it rains pocket knives.”
When it comes to ice, wind, rain and snow, Scandinavia has a plethora of marvelous sayings. If something in Norway is already done and dusted, it’s “like last year’s snow“, snøen som falt i fjor. The Swedes say, det som göms i snö, kommer upp i tö — that “what is hidden in snow comes up in the thaw,” i.e. that sooner or later the truth will reveal itself. They also think “there is no bad weather, only bad clothes” – det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder. The Russians presumably do not share this sentiment: they’ve got an expression for when you’re shivering so badly that “you can’t keep your teeth together”, зуб на зуб не попадает! An honorable mention must also go to kar çiftçinin yorganıdır, Turkish for “snow is the farmer’s blanket” (because it protects the soil).
For pure poetry, try another Turkish phrase: Gök ağlamayınca yer gülmez — “if the sky doesn’t cry, the earth won’t laugh.” Another lovely one is the Italian rhyme rosso di sera, bel tempo si spera, which translates roughly as “red in the evening, we hope for good weather.” English has a corollary expression: “Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning” (some variations have sailor instead of shepherd). This appears to have some factual basis as well.
But for true, searing heat we have to go in search of warmer climes. To India, where during the monsoon “it’s raining fire,” अग्नि बरस रही है. To China, where “the clouds are burning,” 火云如烧. And to Australia, where a hot day might be a “scorcher,” a “stinker,” or, if you’re really feeling it, “hotter than a shearer’s armpit.” Who said Australians can’t do poetry?
It would be remiss of me not to point out that the expression “like greased lightning” is probably of Dutch (als een gesmeerde bliksem) or German (wie ein geölter Blitz) origin. We can also thank the Germans for schnell wie der Blitz, “as quick as lightning.” Unsurprisingly, they’ve also got a couple of choice rain expressions: to leave someone hanging is literally to “leave them standing in the rain,” jemanden im Regen stehen lassen, and to go from a bad situation to a worse one is to go vom Regen in die Traufe, “from the rain into the gutter.”
And next time something’s bothering you, try adopting a more Swedish attitude and låtsas som om det regnar. Take no notice — literally, “pretend that it’s raining.”