Cast ne’er a clout till May be out
I had not come across this proverb before I met TOWT, who informed me that it was often used within her family.
The first written citation of this peculiar proverb dates back to 1732 in Dr Thomas Fuller’s Gnomologia, “leave not a clout off till May be out”, although the component parts have an earlier origin.
Since as early as the 15th century clout has been used to describe, variously, a blow to the head, a clod of earth or clotted cream or a fragment of cloth or clothing. The use of clout to mean clothing can be traced back in written form to the Early English Miscellanies of Prose and Verse of 1485, “he had not left an holle clowt, wherein to hyde hys body abowte”.
So it is pretty certain that the first part of the proverb warns you not to get rid of your clothing, presumably your warm winter clothing.
There is some uncertainty about the usage of the word may. It could just be the calendar month. The English weather is so uncertain you would be best advise not to discard your winter wear until the end of May.
However, there may be an alternative meaning. The hawthorn was a common feature of the English hedgerow – 200,000 miles of hawthorn were planted as hedgerow in the period of the enclosures between 1750 and 1850 – and its distinctive and beautiful display of flowers occurs between late April and early May. It is known as the May tree and its blossom as May.
Shakespeare in his sonnets describes the darling buds of May (Sonnet 18) and the old rhyme, April showers bring forth May flowers, clearly uses May in the context of the hawthorn.
While this explanation is appealing, there is Victorian evidence that the more prosaic calendar meaning is likely to be correct. In 1855 F K Robertson wrote in his Whitby Gazette, “the wind at north and east/was never good for man nor beast/so never think to cast a clout/til the month of May be out”.
Either way, given the state of our weather, this advice is sound.