Shotgun Wedding – Idiom, Meaning & Origin

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

The English language is full of idioms, words, and phrases with figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from their literal meaning. Their figurative use can confuse anyone unfamiliar with their meaning, making the language difficult to understand.

A shotgun wedding is the perfect example of this and can be used to describe anything from a hasty and quick marriage to a forced merging of ideas between two or more companies or businesses.

Let’s examine the interesting history behind the phrase and how you can use it in your material.

What Is a Shotgun Wedding?

Shotgun Wedding Idiom Meaning Origin

Traditionally, a shotgun wedding is a marriage ceremony in which the participants are forced to marry, presumably under the threat of being shot with a shotgun.

Generally, a shotgun wedding occurs when the participants have engaged in premarital sex, the woman has become pregnant, and her father expects her honor to be upheld.

The idea is to preserve the bride’s respect in the eyes of the community and ensure that the unborn child will be provided for. The term comes from expecting the bride’s father to hold a shotgun to the potential bridegroom to expedite his agreement with the inevitable nuptials.

For example:

  • After her father caught her continually sneaking out together, you might want to call their courthouse visit a shotgun wedding to ignore the rules of her parent’s household.
  • Their shotgun wedding was a blessing in disguise as they embraced parenthood and have since had two more biological children and have adopted within the local community.

Today, the term shotgun wedding is mostly used figuratively to describe or even joke about a quick wedding.

For example:

  • They only dated for two months before getting married, prompting their friends to joke about their shotgun wedding plans despite their obvious devotion to one another.
  • Monica asked Anna if she needed to start making baby shower plans after hearing about their unexpected shotgun wedding held at the courthouse that afternoon.

It also can be applied in other circumstances, such as when two people are forced to cooperate on a project, or two companies are forced to merge.

For example:

  • The residents of the Homeowners Association opposed the shotgun wedding the board members attempted to force upon them concerning the rules of the new, encroaching neighborhoods.
  • The company merger was a shotgun wedding approach to quell the employees’ concerns after the fiscal year audit reported a drastic loss in profit.

Origin of Shotgun Wedding

Shotgun Wedding Ngram
Shotgun Wedding Usage Trend.

A shotgun wedding is an American idiom that appeared sometime during the second half of the 19th century. They originated and occasionally made their way into the court system as early as the 1870s.

One of the first recorded instances of suing for divorce due to a shotgun wedding was reported on in The Cincinnati Enquirer on April 15th, 1972, where the petitioner alleged,

“…[The Family of the Defendant] compelled him, by threats of death by shooting, to proceed to the house of Olhausen, about half a mile distant, and marry [the defendant]. In consequence of these threats… went to Olhausen’s house…long enough for the performance of the ceremony, which, in spite of protests, entreaties, and tears, was forced on him at the muzzle’s mouth.”

Gossip columns of the time regularly reported on shotgun marriages, and instances of more generic uses in politics and business appeared in the early 1920s.

Literal shotgun weddings were a real thing! But, being slightly violent and coercive, they are a thing of the past – especially since children born out of wedlock are not born with the stigma they once were, nor is single parenthood frowned upon. However, the expectation that both parents provide financial stability to the child is still very real, and the court systems generally deal with any problems that arise from this (rather than a father with a shotgun).

Let’s Review

A traditional shotgun wedding was exactly how it sounded, a wedding held under the threat of shooting due to extramarital relationships. Of course, this use is a bit outdated overall, and the term has come to describe a quick wedding or forced cooperation between people or businesses.