Monkey’s Wedding

In New York we used to say “The Donald is fixing his hair.”

Dear Word Detective: Why do we call a sunshower “a monkey’s wedding”? — Milo Chow.

Good question. One of the advantages of living in the middle of nowhere in Flatland (the US Midwest), as I do, is that you can step outside and see the sky right down to the horizon in nearly any direction. So, given the lack of better things to do, I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at the sky. It’s actually pretty neat. You can see thunderstorms fifty miles away, the most breathtakingly beautiful cloud formations imaginable, and, on a clear night, the Milky Way stretching across the entire sky. Plus, of course, all the meteorites and UFOs. It’s all very magnificent, although it’s debatable whether it really makes up for the dearth of edible pizza around here.

One cool thing we see fairly frequently are “sun-dogs” (parhelia, from the Greek “para,” beside, plus “helios,” sun), bright fragments of rainbows that form in the sky on either side of the sun when it’s low in the sky and shining through ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. They’ve been called “sun-dogs” since about 1635, but no one knows why. I suspect that it’s because they accompany the sun like faithful dogs.

The word “sunshower” seems to be missing from most major dictionaries, which is odd, given that it’s a fairly common meteorological phenomenon. A “sunshower” occurs when it’s raining (“showering”) where you are, but the sun is also shining on you. A sunshower usually happens when the sun is fairly low in the sky and the rain is coming from an isolated batch of clouds directly above.

Sunshowers, while not exactly a frequent event, are not terribly rare anywhere on earth. What makes sunshowers especially interesting, however, is the fact that nearly every human culture has its own term for the phenomenon. More remarkably, many of these terms “explain” the event as being an indication of either the devil or various animals doing something, usually either fighting or getting married. The animals in these terms are almost always central figures in the folklore of the culture, frequently the “trickster” character of legends, an animal with human intelligence who either triumphs over danger through use of their wits or outsmarts the local humans and wreaks havoc on social mores.

Back in 1998, Harvard linguist Bert Vaux posted a query about such sunshower terms to the Linguist email discussion list and, a month later, posted the remarkable results of his survey. “A monkeys’ wedding” is, for instance, a well-known term in South African English, apparently a direct translation of the Zulu “umshado wezinkawu.” In many languages (including Bulgarian, Finnish, Italian, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese and English), however, the animal getting married is the fox. In Arabic, “the rats are getting married,” while in Hindi it’s “the jackals” that are the lucky couple. The Koreans speak of “the tiger” getting hitched.

The devil also figures in many “sunshower” phrases, although he’s not always getting married. In the southern US, a rain/sun moment prompts the observation that “the devil is beating his wife,” a more elaborate version of which (“When it rains when it shines, the devil’s beating his wife with a codfish”) has been heard in Yorkshire, England. A more harmonious version (“The devil’s kissing his wife”) is said to be common in Tennessee. The devil fighting with his wife is also popular in Hungarian and Dutch. Witches, not to be left out, pop up around the world dancing, making butter, or making bread in the rain. Evidently witches also get married in Spain. In Greece they say “the poor people are getting married,” but they also say “the Bulgarians are getting married,” so there may be a story there.

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