We had a monkey’s wedding the other day. For those of you who don’t know the phrase (probably most of you not on the African continent) it means a shower of rain while the sun is shining. It comes from a Zulu phrase Umshado we Zinkawu.
We grew up using the phrase in South Africa without knowing where it came from. I used it in a children’s story which was one of the first things I wrote that actually earned me money. It won a writing competition and was broadcast on radio. I managed to get an agent and she suggested sending the story overseas. She tried a British publisher and their rejection letter was a polite version of “huh?” I did some research and found out where the phrase came from, but never got so far as to send it off again.
Language can be sneaky that way – words or phrases so familiar they are invisible. And then you get the other extreme. You look up something to find out the correct term, and find out that it is so odd that people are going to fall over laughing if you use it. Collective nouns are a prime example. Many of them seem to make no sense at all, and one has to wonder who thought them up.
Some can be beautiful, like an exultation of larks or a kaleidoscope of butterflies, but does anyone ever really say ‘I saw a shrewdness of apes today’ or ‘There is a business of ferrets in the field”?
This is part of the fun for writers. Trying to decide if a word or phrase is well known enough to be obvious, or if an unobtrusive hint is necessary. Or just rephrase those exultant larks…