sunshowers (and The Donkeys Are Getting Married)

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Aug 24 07:13:17 UTC 2001

At 11:42 AM -0500 8/24/01, Paul Ivsin wrote:
>Bert Vaux posted a (amazingly) large summary on linguist list in 1998:
>which includes, under "English,"
>3. donkey's wedding (the woman who used this form grew up in both
>         India and England, so it is not clear which was the source of this
>         expression)
>"The devil's beating his wife" is also noted there in Dutch, English &
There's also this from a more recent posting on Michael Quinion's
World Wide Words column <>, which relays
a provocative suggestion at the end (extending "Make love not war" to
animals, Satan, etc.):

World Wide Words -- 16 Jun 01

Lots and lots of subscribers wrote in after last
week's piece, many of them in response to my passing comment that I
didn't know the word 'sunshower' and that it wasn't in any of my
dictionaries. The word is widely known among subscribers in the
USA, largely among people on the east coast. It was also reported
as being frequently found in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and
also sometimes from Britain. The wide geographic spread of replies
suggests that the term has been carried to these countries from
Britain. It is certainly quite old: I've since found examples from
the 1850s in American writings, but - curiously - no British ones.

Many subscribers also wrote to say that they knew another saying to
describe the phenomenon: "the devil is beating his wife". Some told
of a longer version: "The devil's behind his kitchen door beating
his wife with a frying pan". It seems that the saying is well known
especially among older subscribers from the American South (roughly
the Carolinas to Texas) plus New York and New England.

Many correspondents were as puzzled as I am about the reasons for
sayings about weddings and devils to describe what is after all a
fairly mild and not unpleasant meteorological phenomenon. There's
clearly a common association that is understood by widely divergent
language communities, so it seems to be something at a level more
fundamental than superficial culture. But what is it?

Anne Virtue wrote: "In the 1940s when I was a child in Virginia, I
was taught to put my ear to the ground during a period when the
rain was coming down and the sun was shining. When I heard a
drumming from below, I was told that what I was hearing was the
sound of the devil beating his wife. I wonder if all those marrying
animals might be 'thumping' away below". David Howorth also
conjectured: "I'm now wondering whether 'beating' is a euphemism
for less vicious conjugal activity". Could this be it?

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