“Ne’er cast a clout till May be out” is a well known saying for most people brought up in Britain. However, it has often been a source of disagreement as to whether the word “May” refers to the month or to the familiar maytree. The fact that it is usually capitalised might suggest that it relates to the month but the capitalisation might just be an accidental error. The problem is not helped by the fact that there can often be sharp frosts in the month of May so the weather provides no clue, despite the fact that the saying relates to one’s keeping warm.
Although the saying is common in Britain, it is worth looking at what sayings (often of peasant origin or usage), there might be elsewhere. In France, they have ‘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 is not quite same meaning as ‘ne’er cast a clout…’.
There are, however, home-grown versions that support the ‘month’ theory – a fuller version of the rhyme, which goes:
“Button to chin, till May be in,
Cast not a clout till May be out”
Or from the 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”
In Spain, They are much more specific: ‘Hasta el cuarenta de mayo no te quites el sayo‘, that is, ‘Don’t leave off your coat till May 40th‘! So that settles it, we live in Spain and it is quite clear that it is the month that is being referred to, but when is the 40th of May? May has 31 days so I guess it is the 9th or 10th June.
I’ll keep wearing my cardigan for a little longer.