Tuesdays with Moron: Chatological Humor Update

Apr 17, 2012

Every Tuesday, Gene publishes weekly updates to his chats.

- Gene's latest chat

- Gene's next chat (May 2)

On one Tuesday each month, Gene is online to take your questions and abuse. He will chat about anything. Although this chat is sometimes updated between live shows, it is not and never will be a "blog," even though many persons keep making that mistake. One reason for the confusion is the Underpants Paradox: Blogs, like underpants, contain "threads," whereas this chat contains no "threads" but, like underpants, does sometimes get funky and inexcusable.

Today there is one item only, but it is a stunning tale of forensic etymology.  

A few days ago, Dan and I were trying to come up with a script for a new Sunday of Barney & Clyde.   Like much creativity, this process is often heterogenous, haphazard and ugly.   If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, and a sausage is a product best not seen manufactured, a comic strip is a sausage made by a camel.   

Anyway, after about the 26th attempt at coming up with an idea, Dan wondered aloud why people say "It's raining cats and dogs."   This seemed like an interesting question to be asked by Cynthia Pillsbury of her grandfather Ebenezer. Grandpa Eb is always good for a fractured, deeply wrong yet iconoclastic explanation of how the world works.  But to know how Eb would answer, we needed to know the truth.  Alas, once we found it we realized we could not tell this story to children on Sunday mornings.  We could only tell it to Chatological Humor readers, who have no standards and are mostly an ill-tempered lot.  

It turns out that the phrase probably arose in 17th and 18th century London, and it involved poor sanitation.   London back then was a filthy place.   People died left and right of dread diseases with comical names, like "St. Vitus' Dance" or "consumption" or "dropsy."  They would have "fits of apoplexy."  They would succumb to "grocer's itch." They would be afflicted with "scrofula."   Their lives were awful, or, as Thomas Hobbes famously wrote --  "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."    If it was that way for people, imagine what it was like for animals.     Stray dogs and cats prowled the streets, surviving by their wits, eating, among other things, diseased rats.    Dogs and cats tended to die early and often.  

This is from an unsigned online essay about Olde London:

An amazing variety of filth slopped down London's cobblestone streets. Along with dirt, dust and animal manure, there was the ever-falling London rain to add to the mess. Cesspools of human waste collected in puddles everywhere. Dead animals (dogs, cats, rodents, even horses) were left to decay in the streets. In darker corners of the city, an occasional human corpse might even be found. To add to all this, horse-drawn carriages with heavy metal wheels often splashed through puddles, slopping the street's putrid muck all over strolling pedestrians

And when it rained heavily in London of the 17th and 18th centuries, it often rained hard -- huge gullywashers that would quickly overcome the meager capacities of the storm sewers.   Streets would flood, and atop the flood would float all the detritus of the city, most notably the gassy, bloated corpses of cats and dogs, which would rise to the top.    

Life is horror.   Humor and irony are one of the greatest tools we have to deal with that disturbing fact.   So it is that some wit noted these corpses and created the meme that they had rained from the sky.   The wit may or may not have been Jonathan Swift, but it is indisputable that Swift made it stick.   In a 1710 poem "Description of a City Shower," he writes:

"I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs".

In a Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation,   Swift forever cemented the meme: "I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs".


We decided it was unwise to put all this in Barney & Clyde.    Instead, you get it today.  You are welcome.


Finally, I urge and beseech you all to vote for Barney & Clyde in this reader poll being taken by The Chicago Tribune; they're using it as a tool to decide which strips to retain and which to drop.       

As many of you know, I dislike and disrespect comics polls, and one reason I dislike and disrespect them is that they are susceptible to what I am doing right now, with this lame-ass entreaty:  stuffing the ballot boxes.  The stakes are high, so everyone does it:  You beg friends to vote.  (You are all my friends; I love you all dearly, especially right now at this moment.)  Some comics syndicates are notorious for trying to influence the vote.  (Mine is not.) 

  In short, reader polls are terribly manipulable events, and they corrupt the innocent:  if you DON'T try to stuff the ballot boxes, you're at a competitive disadvantage. 

Barack Obama hates SuperPACS but now is using them because the other guy is.   That's me, here.   Just like the president! 


There is one fascinating element in this poll.   The Captcha software the Tribune uses, the thing to assure the voter is not a machine,  is almost undecipherable.    See if it'll accept your vote the first time.  It didn't take mine.   It's like trying to read hieroglyphs.   




Please note: The next full chat is not Tuesday, April 24, but Wednesday, May 2.  Same time.

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Gene Weingarten
Gene Weingarten is the humor writer for The Washington Post. His column, Below the Beltway, has appeared weekly in the Post's Sunday magazine since July 2000 and has been distributed nationwide on The Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. He was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.
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