Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

There’s an old saying that goes: ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out.’

‘Clout’ is an old word for a piece of cloth or item of clothing, so the saying seems to be warning people to stay well wrapped up until the start of June. But that seems unduly cautious, even for the UK and even in this year of unseasonably cold spring weather. So how about another reading: ‘Ne’er cast a clout till may be out.’

May is another word for the hawthorn, whose delicate white flowers decorate the hedgerows in late spring*. Round here the may is not yet flowering, it’s late like everything else. So maybe my grandmother was right when she maintained that the saying referred to the flower, not the month it is named after.

May is traditionally a month of celebration, originally of the arrival of spring, now often of workers’ rights. It’s a month when the UK enjoys not one but two bank holidays, May Day at the beginning of the month, and another at the end. Maypole dancing is less common than it used to be, though it is still practised in some places. There may even be a May Queen, representing the spirit of spring, and identified both with the goddess Flora and the Virgin Mary. Mayday is also a call for help from a ship or plane in danger, but this has nothing to do with the month or the flower, being an anglicized version of the French ‘m’aider’.

As well as being both a proper and a common noun, may is also of course a modal verb, with a range of meanings and fixed expressions that you can explore here. You can also find a video by our Editor-in-Chief explaining why it is perfectly OK to use can instead of may.

May comes from Old French ‘mai’ and from Latin ‘Maius’, the month of the Greek goddess Maia, the eldest of the seven Pleiades.

*To pre-empt any comments from keen botanists: the image does not show hawthorn blossom.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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