Today across southern England, it was one of those glorious May mornings of which the poets wrote. The darling buds in bloom, the scent of the blossom hanging like nectar in the air, and the sun up in a clear sky, temperature in the mid-twenties.

Yet I took a pullover with me when I went out. Why? Because I have never forgotten the old English proverb taught to me by my grandmother 'ne'er cast a clout, till May be out'.

The earliest written version is that of Dr Thomas Fuller in 1732. But the argument has never been settled. Does it refer to the month of May? Should we not leave off an item of clothing until June arrives, or does it refer to the 'may flower' on the hawthorn which blooms along the 200,000 miles of English hedgerow from late April?

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    The equivalent in French refers to the month (of April -- but then April showers are Giboulées de mars) – Andrew Leach May 20 '14 at 6:02
  • @AndrewLeach It is difficult making comparison to France, because one half of it belongs in a completely different climatic zone to the other half (notice how the sun always comes out when you cross the Loire, going south), whereas England (for this purpose ignoring Scotland) has a broadly similar climate throughout. – WS2 May 20 '14 at 7:54
  • That's probably why their month-based expressions are a month out. – Andrew Leach May 20 '14 at 7:56
  • The saying originated before the English calendar was shifted forwards from the Julian to Gregorian calendar in 1752. Without that change it would now imply keeping warm clothing until June 13 which seems excessive, even for England. – user24964 May 20 '14 at 9:12
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    I thought I would share the French translation of "Nee'r cast a clout till May be out" : "En Avril, ne te découvre pas d'un fil. En Mai, fais ce qu'il te plaît" See : thoughtco.com/ne-te-decouvre-pas-dun-fil-1371201 – Catherine Poncet Mar 24 '17 at 16:49

The excellent coverage of this question at The Phrase Finder points out an earlier (than 1732) source that conveys the gist of the saying in a translated Spanish proverb:

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".

But then the author of this article observes:

Those rhymes may well have originated in England and migrated across the Channel. It is difficult to understand why the Spanish would coin such a proverb, which would seem a little cautious for that part of the world - the average temperature in Seville in May is 20°C.

The Phrase Finder's author ultimately votes firmly in favor of the end-of-the-fifth-month-of-the-year interpretation of the saying over the hawthorns-past-their-bloom interpretation:

All in all, although the May blossom interpretation seems appealing, the 'May' in this proverb is the month of May.

Jennifer Speake, Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, Fifth Edition (2008), cites both Stevens and Fuller in her brief coverage of the saying—and then offers this interesting quotation from Robert Graves, The White Goddess (1948):

In ancient Greece, as in Britain, this [May] was the month in which people went about in old clothes—a custom referred to in the proverb 'Ne'er cast a clout err May be out,' meaning 'do not put on new clothes until the unlucky month is over.'

So the Graves theory seems to be that the May referred to is indeed the month of May, but that the point of not casting off a clout during May has to do with an old English (and ancient Greek) superstition about not prematurely donning new clothing during the month of May.

Followup: Thanks to the excerpt that jlovegren provides from a different edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (and to Mari-Lou A's asking about it), we can see that an earlier version of the Spanish form of the proverb has existed at least since 1627—but instead of saying "Until May has passed..." it says "Until May..." That suffices to get the citizens of Seville out of their overcoats on May 1, and it gives Spain a 105-year head start in documented existence of the proverb over the first native English occurrence. It begins to look to me as though Spain has the stronger claim.

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  • With respect to weather and Spain: "Hasta pasado Mayo No te quites el sayo—Spain: i.e., Till May has passed do not leave off your overcoat" -A handbook of weather folk-lore; being a collection ... . Swainson, Charles, (published 1873) – Third News May 20 '14 at 4:30
  • Why would wearing new=clean clothes in May be considered unlucky, I wonder. Perhaps the resulting stench even put off the Grim Reaper himself :) Typo alert: end-of-the-fifth-moth – Mari-Lou A May 20 '14 at 4:45
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    @Mari-Lou A: Thanks for pointing out the moth/month typo. I usually see the fifth moth of the year in my sweater drawer by January 2. – Sven Yargs May 20 '14 at 16:53

I'll go ahead and post the entry from Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs

[Sp. c. 1627 CORREAS Vocabulario (1906) 480 Hasta Mayo no te quites el sayo. 1706 STEVENS S.V. Mayo, Hasta passado Mayo no te quites el sayo, Do no tleave off your Coat till May be past. Cf. also S.V. Abril, En Abril no quites fil: In April do not take off a Thread. Cf. also Sayo, Guarda el sayo, para Mayo, Keep your great Coat for May, that is, do not part with it before May. 1732 FULLER no. 6193 Leave not off a Clout, Till May be out. 1832 HENDERSON 154.

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  • I don't understand, does 1627 refer to the English proverb or the Spanish one? forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=975468 – Mari-Lou A May 20 '14 at 4:32
  • @Mari-Lou A: I believe that 1627 refers to the date of the "Hasta Mayo no te quites el sayo" version of the Spanish proverb that Stevens restated (as "Hasta passado Mayo no te quites el sayo") and translated in his 1706 New Spanish and English Dictionary. The ca. 1627 version of the Spanish proverb indicates that, if it began as an English proverb that migrated to Spain (as The Phrase Finder author suggests), the English saying went unrecorded (and unidentified) in surviving English publications for at least 105 years after its emergence in Correas's Vocabulario. That's quite a stretch. – Sven Yargs May 20 '14 at 16:50
  • @SvenYargs There is an interesting discussion of the Spanish point here, including the obvious odd inference that Spain could possibly be chilly in May. – WS2 Aug 19 '15 at 9:16
  • @WS2 The full Spanish rhyming refrain runs “Hasta el cuarenta de mayo no te quites el sayo, y si eres de Albacete, hasta el cuarenta-siete.” That said, the average May temperature in that city is still 73 degrees, little moderated by its 2250 feet of elevation up on the inner plateau. – tchrist May 27 '17 at 14:46
  • @tchrist One suspects that in Spain the proverb is not used by mothers to remind their children to take something warm to wear, with quite the rigour it is in Britain. – WS2 May 27 '17 at 19:24

According to the following source, your second assumption seems to be the probable origin of the saying:

The earliest published version version of the rhyme can be found in Dr. Thomas Fuller’s “Gnomologia” published in 1732.

Since at least the early 15th century ‘clout’ has been used to mean a fragment of cloth or clothing and was spelled as clowt, clowte, cloot, or clute. It’s here that the saying took on two meanings rather than just the original. The new meaning was a reminder not to be too quick to shuck the warmer winter clothes before cooler days during the month of May were most likely over.

That being said, English farm-workers working the fields in their winter clothes throughout the month of May could suffer from heat exhaustion if they kept all their winter layers on until the end of May! The flowering of the hawthorne (May) tree was a more reliable guide to the state of the weather.

This means that the original meaning goes back even further than the 15th century and indeed, it can be traced back to the 12th century. During Medieval times in Brittany, a man proposed to his beloved by leaving a hawthorne (also known as a Mayflower) branch at the door of his beloved on the first of May. By leaving the branch at the door she accepted his proposal.

Traditionally, it was taboo to bring hawthorne into the house in Medieval England because it was feared it would bring death with it. This is because the hawthorne blossom has a distinctive fragrance and in medieval times, the blossom was said to carry the ‘stench of death’. (This is due to the trimethylene that the flowers give off as they deteriorate.)

The exception to that rule was during May-Day celebrations (for one day only) when it was permitted to bring flowers into the house for decoration. No marriages were allowed during the month of May and it was considered unlucky to marry in the hawthorne month since most people during Medieval times rarely bathed, June was usually one of the months in which most people had baths. The exception to the rule, of course, would be those who lived in castles.

(emphasis mine)

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  • +1 for your excellent post. But who said that the may flower was a more reliable guide? – WS2 May 19 '14 at 20:08
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    Given that the source repeats the totally and absolutely FALSE drivel about medieval people only bathing once a year, I simply can't ascribe much accuracy to the rest of its assertions. – Marthaª May 19 '14 at 21:01
  • @Martha fascinating, I thought or read similar beliefs on cleanliness but what is your source on medieval people bathing regularly? Josh61, the belief that May was "considered unlucky to marry" is perhaps the reason June is a custom – Third News May 20 '14 at 3:34
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    @Marthaª where does the text say medieval people bathed once a year? It says that June was one of the months when people chose to have baths. Hence they bathed at the very least twice a year, but the most likely explanation is that most skipped a month or two before washing themselves. – Mari-Lou A May 20 '14 at 4:24
  • @Mari-LouA: all of which is utter falsehood. There is ample evidence that medieval people enjoyed bathing, and did it regularly. Most people at least "washed behind their ears" on a daily basis, and people with access to public baths/hot springs visited so often that priests would preach sermons against it. Hand-washing before meals was absolutely required, and washbasins were a regular feature of bedrooms. Yes, filling a big tub by lugging buckets of hot water was difficult and thus rare, but "bathing" covers multiple ways of getting clean. – Marthaª May 20 '14 at 14:44

My dad read this old rhyme when he was a kid; he was born in 1908 and he passed it on to me when I was a kid:

Cast ne'er a clout 'til May be out,
Change in June and you change too soon,
Change in July and you'll catch cold by and by,
Change in August if you must, but,
Please do remember, change back in September.

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  • A new one on me. In which part of the country was your father brought up? – WS2 Aug 19 '15 at 9:03

These Cast not a clout till May be out quotes are weather related but it does not necessarily exclude @Josh61's hawthorne blossom reference is not also the origin:

Cast not a clout—'till May be out.§

§ The great prevalence of easterly winds during this month, appears to me the chief cause of this well-known injunction.

— A collection of proverbs and popular sayings relating ... . Denham, Michael Aislabie, d. 1859. (printed 1846.)

On account of the prevalence of east winds in May, we find many proverbs warning us not to leave off warm clothing till the end of the month—e.g.: a. Cast not a clout Till May be out.
6. Who doffs his coat on a winter's day Will gladly put it on in May.—Scotland.

— A handbook of weather folk-lore; being a collection ... . Swainson, Charles, 1841- (published 1873)

One day in last week the thermometer rose 30° and fell 27°, all in twelve hours. This is an illustrative example of what the weather can do in this country, and collaterally— so far as those who escaped injury are concerned—the episode affords excellent proof of the adaptability of the English "constitution" to a changefulness which not many of the inhabitants of more equable climes could with impunity undergo. Whatever the weather may be for some five or six weeks to come, no prudent person should venture to lay aside winter clothing altogether for the attire appropriate to summer. "Cast not a clout till May be out," and even then make any desired change discreetly, for "fickle as the wind is a proverb which has more than metaphorical force in England, and which it is well all who value their health should lay very practically to heart."

— The Lancet. 1886 (vol.1).

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  • The 'easterly winds' point may have relevance to the expression's popularity in Norfolk! – WS2 Aug 19 '15 at 9:05

In the northern part of the U.S. the proverb makes perfect sense. I see women wearing "those silly short pants" and sandals in May when it's in the 30s and think they must be crazy or at least cold. I am undoubtedly a lot more comfortable in long jeans - with something warm under them - wool socks, and running shoes.

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    Hello @S. Diana. This answer doesn't really address the question of the original poster, which is the explanation for the terminology of the proverb. ELU values answers with explanations. – Xanne May 27 '17 at 5:38

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