Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Rather Busy Day for Satan

Most Americans with a passing interest in language probably already clicked through the dialogue maps posted recently by North Carolina State. They should have, anyway. These maps are damn cool. Colored splotches show you what regions of the U.S. say what, and for this flat-accented Californian who’s used to hearing people on TV talk like me, it’s helpful to be reminded how differently my fellow Americans can speak. (“That’s what they call soda over there? Oh my god, they’re so weird.”) But of all the dialectical breakdowns featured in the study, this one grabbed my attention most: “What do you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining?”

sunshower the devil is beating his wife

The map would seem to be accurate: I’m in that yellowish southern California splotch that would say “other.” (Obviously, the answer is “You’re on vacation in Hawaii, because this never happens anywhere else.”) I had never heard the expression sunshower, and while that seems like a sensible enough name for this type of weather, the superior term just in terms of batshit, backwoodsy folksiness has to be The devil is beating his wife, which I’d also never heard before (a-cuz California) and which has to be one of the more head-scratchy English idioms I’ve ever heard.

So what’s the deal? Here are the three theories I found online:
  • It could be just that unexpected raindrops are happening because they’re Mrs. Devil’s tears, according to this message board post.
  • According to this post on the same thread, it could also mean essentially “a mixed blessing” — to have rain during sun is a mix of bad and good, in the way that beating your wife is bad but maybe it’s not so awful when the wife in question is married to the devil. #controversial
  • And then there’s the theory I like best: Posted unsourced on Wikipedia, it states that rain during sunshine is a rare, beautiful thing, and because the devil hates anything good, he’s taking his anger out on his wife.
This Word Detective post also attempted to find the origin to this expression and came up with nothing conclusive, though the author does note that similar phrases exists outside the Southern U.S. For  example, Hungarian has The devil is getting married, and German has The devil is having a parish fair. And this guide to English translated into idiomatic French offers Le diable bat sa femme et marie sa fille (“The devil is beating his wife and marrying his daughter”) as the equivalent of It rains and shines at the same time, so way to go France for upping the ante by wedging incest into a discussion of a pleasant meteorological phenomenon.

According to Wikipedia, those who use these “devil” phrases are in the minority. Most idioms describing this kind of weather describe it as being some kind of special animal party. Among others:
  • In South Africa, a monkey’s wedding
  • In India and Japan, a fox’s wedding
  • In Korea, a male tiger gets married to a fox
  • In Morocco and France, a wolf’s wedding
  • In parts of Africa, a leopard’s wedding
  • In Kenya, a hyena’s wedding
  • In Bulgaria, a bear’s wedding
  • In northern Iran, a jackal’s wedding
  • And in El Salvador, just to be difficult, it’s a deer is giving birth
All of which, of course, are far cuter than domestic violence, devil-related or not.

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