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The expression “shotgun wedding/marriage”, as described in the following link, is an American English one.

Of American-English origin, the phrases shotgun wedding and shotgun marriage denote a wedding into which one or both partners are forced, usually because the woman is pregnant.

Its earliest usage instances appear to date from the second half of the 19th century from American papers such as:

The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) of Monday 15th April 1872 and

The Telegraph and Messenger (Macon, Georgia) of Tuesday 21st August 1883.

Also its metaphoric usage appears to have been first used in AmE:

Those phrases came to also denote any forced union. The following article from the Editorial Page of the San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) of Friday 1st March 1929 illustrates the transition to this generic sense.

I’d assume that in the 19th century this kind of marriages were celebrated in England too, and if so, what were they called in BrE?

  • Are you looking for the equivalent for 1) the literal meaning (two spouses), or 2) the figurative meaning (organizations, political parties, etc.), or both? – smci Sep 28 at 8:44
  • @smci - I’m looking for the equivale BrE expression of shotgun marriage at the time it was initially used in AmE and which expression is still commonly used nowadays. – user067531 Sep 28 at 9:15
  • You should write American English, and British English in full, once, and then use the abbreviations. Visitors come from outside EL&U.... (English language & Usage) – Mari-Lou A Sep 29 at 22:09
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Nowadays, British English speakers may also use "shotgun wedding."

The British National Corpus has a large number of samples of British English through the mid-1990s. Here are the three results that come up for shotgun wedding.

. Of course somebody, Who Shall Be Nameless, would bring up the subject of Burns-And-You-Know-What, and how many of his children were born on The Wrong Side Of The Blanket, What Right Had We to look down on Brown Owl for her shotgun wedding when we were all supposed to look up to Rabbie Burns as Our Big Hero? (True Confessions and New Cliches. Lochhead, Liz. Edinburgh, Polygon Books, 1985.)

There was some speculation about alternatives, with some canvassing the claims of Derby and Salisbury and others imploring Lloyd George to take over the leadership and unite the parties in a shotgun wedding, but Austen's claims were undeniable. (John Ramsden, The Age of Balfour and Baldwin 1902-1940. Longman Group UK, 1978.)

In this sense May 1968 was the price de Gaulle paid for his attempt at a shotgun wedding between French industry and the twentieth century. (John Harrison, Andrew Glyn, and Philip Armstrong. Capitalism Since 1945. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.)

Notably, the latter two examples use shotgun wedding figuratively in political contexts to describe forcing together two disparate groups for the sake of appearance or political exigence. The fact that they're used, in a way that presumes familiarity by the audience, suggests the phrase is known and used among British English speakers. The Hansard Corpus, a corpus of British parliamentary records from 1803 to 2005, features the usage several times starting in the 1950s:

We have to suffer or enjoy sharing the service with Northern Ireland; it is a marriage of convenience, or perhaps a shotgun wedding, but we should like a divorce from Northern Ireland as quickly as possible (23 May 1957, House of Commons, Mr. George Chetwynd)

The corpus has 29 results total, and the usage seems about equally common from the 1960s onward.

  • 1
    Note that all the BrE examples you cited were figurative (and applied to politics, not two spouses), except the first one. – smci Sep 28 at 8:42
  • @smci I think the answer addresses that comment well in the paragraph below the examples. – WBT Sep 28 at 15:38
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    There is nothing particularly American about shotguns. In fact under the stricter UK gun laws, they are by far the most common legally owned guns, since getting a license for any other type of firearm is much more onerous. – alephzero Sep 28 at 17:24
  • Shotgun wedding is the only term I have ever heard used in Australia—with reference to both literal and figurative marriages. – NMI Oct 1 at 19:55
20

Historically, the term knobstick wedding was used in British English, though the term is now obsolete. From Wikipedia:

A knobstick wedding is the forced marriage of a pregnant single woman with the man known or believed to be the father. It derives its name from the staves of office carried by the church wardens whose presence was intended to ensure that the ceremony took place. The practice and the term were most prevalent in the United Kingdom in the 18th century.

Here one could experience the blows of the knobstick if this forced nuptial covenant was ignored.

From the OED:

knobstick wedding n. now historical; a wedding forced on a couple by parish officials when the woman is pregnant (typically to limit the number of claims on the poor rate for children born out of wedlock)

As in: (same citation)

1826 Bristol Mercury 20 March This was a forced marriage, or, as it is vulgarly called, ‘a knob-stick wedding’.

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    As a BrE speaker, I've never heard anyone use the term knobstick when referring to a force marriage. So while this might be an accurate historical term, I wouldn't use it today and expect anyone to know what it meant. – KillingTime Sep 27 at 14:48
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    Presumably there were no parish officials in the Wild West, so the father or brothers of a "fallen" woman would need to take it upon themselves to find her justice, using the tools at hand. On the other hand, America being America, I have visions of church wardens walking around armed with shotguns as well. – choster Sep 27 at 14:49
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    @KillingTime what expression would BrE speakers use nowadays ? – user067531 Sep 27 at 15:02
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    @user067531 I am British and the only term I know for this type of wedding (as opposed to a 'forced marriage' which usually means a marriage where a family forces a young girl into an arranged marriage for cultural reasons) is shotgun wedding. I accept that it is of American origin but it has been a part of British English for at least 50 years. – BoldBen Sep 27 at 15:19
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    As a Hiberno-English speaker, I've never heard a knobstick wedding. My initial reaction was that it was some kind of rude joke ! – k1eran Sep 27 at 15:21
2

Pity, Craig Philips answer has been deleted. It was he who mentioned that the British English expression was featured in the popular BBC quiz show, QI.

The QI episode, which mentions knobstick weddings is to be found in Series K, episode 4, Knits & Knots, broadcast in 2013, and hosted by Stephen Fry.

Stephen Fry: If you want to tie the knot at a knobstick wedding, what do you need?

A knobstick is a type of wooden club. Now, if a woman was unmarried and had a baby that baby was said to be on the parish. And the parish paid for workhouses and the parish had to pay for the babies, and they didn't like that. So, in the smaller villages where they knew who the father was, they would force the marriage by threatening them with a knobstick. And that was what a knobstick marriage was. It was an enforced marriage because the moment a man marries a woman he is responsible for the baby and the wife. Whereas if an unmarried woman was in the parish, the parish was.

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Detail from The Ryans and Dwyers, Calumniated Men by Erskine Nicol, 1856

The knobstick in Ireland, called Blackthorn or in Irish a camóg (crooked stick), buinneán (sapling), or shillelagh, was used as a weapon of defence since the 12th century. Its popularity continued until it reached a peak in the late 18th and early 19th century when Irish gangs (factions), and sometimes even women, fought over political or religious differences, feuds, land rights, evictions and unpaid debts. Fascinating documentary on YouTube, in Irish and English, Na Chéad Fight Clubs

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