Q From Gary Williams: I wonder if you can shed some light on the phrase a monkey’s wedding? When I was a child growing up in South Africa, my mother would use the saying when we had rain and sunshine at the same time. My wife tells me that she knows the saying from her family, which is mainly of Irish blood.
A It’s certainly a well-known South African expression. A related Afrikaans word, jakkalstrou, jackals wedding, also exists. The South African English version is the direct equivalent (what linguists call a loan translation) of the Zulu umshado wezinkawu, a wedding for monkeys.
Back in 1998, Bert Vaux, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Harvard, asked members of the LINGUIST List about expressions for this weather phenomenon (he called it a sunshower, a lovely name, which I’ve never heard but which I’m told is common in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and also in parts of Britain, though — oddly enough — it appears in few dictionaries). He was told that similar sayings or proverbs exist in a surprising number of languages. A great many of them have animal associations, often to do with marriage (or, as one respondent commented, that activity for which the word marriage may be considered a suitable euphemism).
In Arabic, it seems the term is “the rats are getting married”, while Bulgarians prefer to speak of bears doing so; Mr Vaux was told that in Hindi it becomes “the jackal’s wedding”; in Calabria, it is said that “when it rains with sun, the foxes are getting married”, for which there’s a similar phrase in Japanese; Koreans refer to tigers likewise; there’s even an English dialect term, “the foxes’ wedding”, known from the south west, it seems. However, in Polish, the saying is that “when the sun is shining and the rain is raining, the witch is making butter”.
Several languages refer to devils instead, as in Turkish: “the devils are getting married”. There’s a well-known version in the American South, at least among older people: “The devil’s behind his kitchen door beating his wife with a frying pan”, usually shortened just to “The devil’s beating his wife”.
With so many examples from different languages, it is certainly possible that there’s also an Irish version, though I haven’t come across one.
However, I am baffled as to why and how such phrases should have arisen. There’s clearly a common association that is understood by widely divergent language communities, so it seems to be something at a level below that of superficial culture. But what is it?