Question: What is the origin of the phrase "it's raining cats and dogs"? -- E.N.K., Petersburg, Va.

Answer: No one knows for sure. It could have originated in Norse mythology, since both animals were believed to have influence over rain and storms. It could have come from an old Greek expression, "cata doxa," which means "contrary to experience or belief." If it is raining cats and dogs, it is raining unusually or unbelievably hard.

In a 1651 collection of poems by British poet Henry Vaughan called "Olor Iscanus," he referred to a roof that was secure against "dogs and cats rained in shower." This is believed to be the first written reference to raining cats and dogs. In 1738, Jonathan Swift's "A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation" includes the phrase, "I know Sir John will go, though he was sure it would rain cats and dogs."

Q: When I was a young boy, my folks bought me an Uncle Milton Ant Farm. I loved it. When my sons reached the same age, I bought them the same toy. This Christmas, my grandchildren each re ceived an ant farm. When were they introduced? What is the story behind the idea? -- C.G., Milford, Pa.

A: After returning home from World War II, Milton Levine and his brother-in-law Joe Cossman started a mail-order novelty company in Pittsburgh. Do you remember the shrunken heads or the 100 soldiers for $1 advertised in comic books? They were from Uncle Milton.


In 1952, the company moved to Hollywood, Calif. During a Fourth of July picnic in 1956, Levine observed ants scurrying about and recalled his youthful days when he would catch the insects and put them in a jar. He went with the idea. Before long, the Uncle Milton Ant Farm was created. It was a success. Nearly 60 years later, it has sold more than 20 million units. Milton Levine died in January 2002 at age 97.

Q: Charlie Parker was one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. His nickname was "Bird." What's with the nick name? -- K.J., Roswell, Ga.

A: Charles Parker Jr. (1920-1955) picked up the nickname "Yardbird" early in his career. There are many conflicting stories as to how he got the name. One story is that he would listen to bands from the yard outside a club. Another is that he loved eating chicken, which was also called yardbird. Yet another version is that he practiced in a park so often that people would hear his sax and call him Bird. In time, Yardbird was shortened to Bird, a name that stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Q: The shirt worn by woman equestrians is called a ratcatcher. Why the unusual name? -- M.W., Ashland, Ore.

A: At one time in Europe, rat catching was necessary to keep cities and towns free of diseases, especially the plague. Rat catchers often wrapped their necks with cloth to protect their throats from angry rats.

The ratcatcher shirt is a button-up shirt with a mandarin-style collar that resembles a turtleneck. Someone noticed the similarity between the two, and the curious name for the riding shirt was born.

At one time, ratcatcher was a British insult. It's not used much anymore, but it was made popular by Shakespeare in "Romeo and Juliet."

Q: The rock band Steely Dan is one of my favorite groups from the 1970s. I know Walter Becker and Donald Fagen formed the band, but where did they get the name? -- S.E.B., Bruns wick, Maine

A: The name was taken from an adult toy mentioned in William S. Burroughs' novel "Naked Lunch."

Q: You explained the meaning of a walk-off home run in a previous article. I first heard the term about two years ago. Where and when did the term first originate? -- A.H.S., Torrance, Calif.

A: A walk-off home run is when a member of the home team hits a home run in the bottom of the last inning and wins the game. The term was coined by relief pitcher Dennis Eckersley. Most baseball historians say Eckersley first used the phrase after giving up a home run to Kirk Gibson in the bottom of the ninth inning of the first game of the 1988 World Series.

The term was first used to describe how a pitcher would have to walk off the field with his head down, but it is more celebratory now.

Q: I know what a boll weevil is, yet I don't. I know it devastates cotton crops, but what does the name mean? -- L.Z., Santa Rosa, Calif.

A: A weevil is a type of beetle that is destructive to plants. "Weevil" comes from the Old English "wifel," which means "beetle." A boll is the pod of the cotton plant. Boll weevils lay their eggs in cotton buds, and the babies eat their way out.

The boll weevil has caused an estimated $14 billion in damage to the U.S. cotton industry since it arrived from Mexico in 1892. Programs to eliminate boll weevils have led to its eradication in several states.

Q: Are there any countries that have no agriculture? -- E.W.S., Mesa, Ariz.

A: Great question. I could not find a definitive answer for you, though most lists have only one country on them -- Singapore. I've been to Monaco and Vatican City several times, and I've never seen a tractor or a farm in either place. I hope readers can help out with some information on other locations with no agriculture.

Q: What is the shortest song ever released by the Beatles? -- H.T.L., Norwich, N.Y.

A: The distinction belongs to "Her Majesty," a 23-second-long song written by Paul McCartney. The song was written, recorded and released in 1969. As part of the Golden Jubilee celebration of Queen Elizabeth II in 2002, McCartney performed the song live from Buckingham Palace.

Q: Your question about Sally Rand reminded me that I once came across a highfalutin word to describe a striptease dancer. Do you know what it is? -- Y.T., Longmont, Colo.

A: The word "ecdysiast" comes to mind. A woman who dances in a chorus line can be called a "chorine."

Send your questions to Mr. Know-It-All at or c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.