Never Cast a clout till May be out
Never Cast a clout till May be out : Phrases
With most phrases and sayings the meaning is well understood but the origin is uncertain. With this one the main interest is the doubt about the meaning. So, this time, we'll have the origin first.
'Ne'er cast a clout till May be out' is an English proverb. The earliest citation is this version of the rhyme from Dr. Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732, although it probably existed in word-of-mouth form well before that:
"Leave not off a Clout Till May be out.
'Cast a clout', although archaic, is straightforward. Clout is a noun, variously spelled as clowt, clowte, cloot, clute, but all meaning cloth or clothing. Here's an early example, circa 1485:
"He had not left an holle clowt, Wherwith to hyde hys body abowte."
So, 'ne'er cast a clout...' just means 'never discard your [warm winter] clothing...'.
The 'till May be out' part is where the doubt lies. On the face of it this would mean 'until [the month of] May is ended'.
The Hawthorn is a common tree of the English countryside, and it flowers in late April/early May. It is known as the May Tree and the blossom itself is called May. Using that allusion, 'till May is out' could mean, 'until the hawthorn is out [in bloom]'.
Other rhymes where May is ambiguous are
- April showers bring forth May flowers.
- Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date. (Shakespeare's Sonnet 18)
We can't really be sure which is the two alternative 'May' explanations is correct. The best we can do is to look at the circumstantial evidence.
The pros and cons...
For the blossom/against the month:
The Hawthorn has long been a potent symbol in English folklore and mythology and appears, as May, in other old rhymes. For example, "Here we go gathering nuts in May". That is probably a corruption of "Here we go gathering knots of May [blossom]". After all, there are no nuts to collect in England until Autumn - certainly not in May.
There are other rhymes and traditions that suggest that all of May was seen as a warm month.
May Day (the 1st of the month) continues to be celebrated as the turn of the year in village festivals. These festivities invariably include a May Queen who is decked out with a crown of May blossom.
In his 'Dyet’s Dry Dinner', 1599, Samuel Butler suggested:
"It is unseasonable and unwholesome in all months that have not an R in their name to eat an oyster."
All these associate May with blossom and/or suggest the month to be warm enough to leave off winter clothing.
Putting the case for the month...
A French proverb - 'En avril, ne te découvre pas d'un fil; en mai, fais ce qui te plaît'. This translates as 'In April, do not shed a single thread; in May, do as you please', which has much the same meaning a 'ne'er cast a clout...'.
Captain John Stevens's work. 'A New Spanish and English Dictionary', published in London in 1706, translates a Spanish proverb, as "Do not leave off your Coat till May be past". (That seems a little cautious for Spain - the average temperature in Seville in May is 20°C).
Those French and Spanish rhymes may or may not have migrated across the Channel. There is a homegrown version that support the 'month' theory though. A fuller version of the rhyme is:
"Button to chin, till May be in,
Cast not a clout till May be out"
The first line appears to have been added later and 'button to chin' can't be found earlier than the 20th century. It clearly refers to the month though, which indicates that whoever coined it thought that way.
There's and explicit mention of the month in the version of the rhyme from F. K. Robertson's, 'Whitby Gazette', 1855:
The wind at North and East
Was never good for man nor beast
So never think to cast a clout
Until the month of May be out
(Wise words for the North Sea-facing Whitby, which can be icy cold even in mid-summer.)
All in all, although the May blossom interpretation seems the more appealing, the 'month' interpretation wins on points.
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