Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

The Devil’s Beating His Wife

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 1, 2013

Recently, NewsTalk 98.7′s Phil Williams used the expression the Devil’s beating his wife on his show, listeners from the southern states knew what he meant while listeners from the northern states were a little less in the know about what he was saying. Whenever you hear someone say the Devil’s beating his wife, the speaker means that the sun is shining while it rains. In other words, it’s what some people call a sun shower.

But how did it get to mean that? Some say that it’s because, quite obviously, the Devil is angry with God for creating beautiful sunny days, and when the Devil gets angry enough about it, he takes his anger out on his wife by beating her. She, in turn, cries large tears that fall from the sky and turn into raindrops. Since this is the explanation for the saying, it makes sense that the expression should exist even though the action itself is criminal. Then again, it would prove next to impossible to charge and prosecute the Devil for any wrongdoing, including domestic assault.

When Joshua Katz from the Department of Statistics at North Carolina State University published his interactive dialect maps that resulted from his “Beyond Soda, Pop or Coke: Regional Dialect Variation in the Continental US” research project, he was selective with the questions covered by the study.

What he did mention in an interview was that when he asked respondents what they called it when rain fell while the sun was shining, most of the country had no term for that incidence and were, therefore, unable to answer the question. However, respondents in parts of the northeast and Florida referred to it as a sunshower while respondents in Mississippi and Alabama referred to it as the Devil is beating his wife.   Because the scope of the study didn’t cover where the expression or term was learned, there was no history as to why people in Mississippi and Alabama referred to sunshowers in this way. Strangely enough, a regional variant used in Tennessee appears to be that the Devil is kissing his wife (and why that would make her cry is anybody’s guess).

According to Dave Thurlow on June 25, 1996 on his radio show in a segment entitled, “Geese, Dutchmen and the Devil” he stated that the expression was interchangeable with other interesting sayings such as the “foxes are getting married” and the “witches are doing their wash” and “a tailor is going to Hell.”

All of those expressions are far less controversial, however, they still provide no hints and give no clue as to the idiom’s origins. That being said, some sources quote the expression as being the Devil’s chasing his wife for burning up the rice. In any case, it would seem that the Devil’s wife certainly finds herself on the receiving end of some awful behavior from her spouse.

On March 7, 1966 the Spokane Daily Chronicle took on explaining a handful of inexplicable idioms including this the Devil’s beating his wife. In Hal Boyle’s weekly column, “Poor Man’s Plato” he began by stating that it doesn’t pay to hitch your wagon to a snail as it had been determined that it takes 2.5 million snails to equal the pulling power of one horse. With that, he ploughed through expressions and folklore with the enthusiasm of a young child competing in a formidable spelling bee of sorts. Part of the article read as follows:

Folklore: The storm will be a long one if chickens come out while it is still raining. To cure a cold, drink a mixture of wine vinegar, rock candy and two fresh raw eggs. When the weather shines and showers at the same time, that’s a sign the Devil is beating his wife. To stop the nosebleed, place a cold key on the back of your neck.

Jumping all the way back to 1922, however, the word whipping sometimes replaced the word beating, as it did in the text of the book entitled, “The Book of Woodcraft and Indian Lore” by Ernest Thompson Seton and published by Doubleday, Page & Company. In the chapter entitled, “General Scouting Outdoors: Old Weather Wisdom” the following is written on page 115:

Rain before seven, clear before eleven.

Fog in the morning, bright sunny day.

If it rains, and the sun is shining at the same time, the Devil is whipping his wife and it will surely rain to-morrow.

If it clears off during the night, it will rain shortly again.

While it was difficult to research the expression, it was found in “A Compleat Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, According to the Most Polite Mode and Method Now Used at Court, and in the Best Companies of England: In Three Dialogues” by Simon Wagstaff, published in 1738 by B. Motte and C. Bathurst at the Middle Temple-Gate in Fleet Street.

COL
It rain’d, and the Sun shone at the same time.

NEVEROUT
Why, then the Devil was beating his Wife behind the Door, with a Shoulder of Mutton.

Perhaps Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (26 July 1856 – 2 November 1950) was correct when he said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

Despite Idiomation’s most ardent efforts, the expression could not be traced to any other published books or articles prior to 1738.  However, that it was used in 1738 with the expectation it would be understood by the public, it is not unreasonable to peg the saying to at least 1700, and most likely earlier. That being said, the saying still begs the question: Who, in their right mind, would marry the Devil in the first place, especially in light of the fact that he’s known to be such a hot-head?

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10 Responses to “The Devil’s Beating His Wife”

  1. Merrill said

    That is the best explanation I’ve read. I used to spend summers with my grandmother in Dothan, AL and she would use that phrase. Yesterday, after picking my son up from school, l used that phrase. When he asked where it came from I could only say “My grandmother used to say it”. Thanks for clearing it up.

  2. I’ve said this to my husband and he’s never heard it before. I heard it from my dad (he’s from Alabama) and my husband is from New York. The first time I said it to my husband he said “Well that’s a terrible saying!”, and my reply was “Duh! He’s the Devil! Who would marry the Devil and not expect to get randomly beaten?”

  3. Glad to hear you found this entry useful and educational. 🙂

  4. ladymiss22 said

    Google Sunshowers (another term for the phenomen) and you’ll find dozens of different expressions from around the world, Devil & Non Devil …

  5. […] aren’t known or heard in the North.  The one that caught my attention was when he said the devil was beating his wife in reference to the […]

  6. Mihai said

    Funny thing, we have this one in Romania 🙂

  7. Alaor said

    Today there was a sunshower and now there’s a flood.We are so scared. Please reply if you saw the sunshower!

  8. I was raised in Ohio (Lorain) and we always referred to sunshowers as the Devil beating his wife. . .both of my parents were from Pa, with no connections to the South. ( I grew up there in the 50’s and 60’s).

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