‘April is the cruellest month’: talking about spring weather

Posted by on March 25, 2013

Spring has sprung, and if the UK weather has any respect for seasonal averages, it will soon improve: temperatures will climb, the sun will shine. There will be fewer extreme events (as the weather people say), like blizzards and heavy snowfalls. March is typically a windy month, but wind speeds will drop in April and there will be frequent showers with sunny intervals. Surely.

A comparison of corpus lines* reveals that March is often described as cold, chilly, and blustery, while April tends to be warm, sunny, and showery. Of course, ‘weather’ adjectives are not absolute: the same temperature may be considered mild in March and chilly in mid-summer. When mild is used of the spring months, the sub-text is usually that it is surprisingly warm ‘for the time of year’.

March winds are depicted in the corpus as bitter, cold or bitterly cold, biting, chilly, wintry, snow-laden; they are blustery, gusty, strong, high, fierce. They blow and howl and roar; they sweep round corners and lash the window frames as they whip through the city streets. April showers are light or heavy, and the overall picture is wetter but more pleasant.

The quotation in my title is from T.S Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, but I found myself muttering, more mundanely, the old adage “March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers”. And corpus evidence corroborates my feeling that this is a well-used bit of weather lore: March collocates strongly with winds, and April with showers, as predicted. There were very few matches for March showers or April winds.

I began to notice that hundreds of the concordance lines contain allusions to other sources – an entire wet spring’s worth of quotes, misquotes, and creative variations. Shakespeare and Chaucer come up, but most noticeable is a generous peppering of pithy adages and rhymes, usually with idiosyncratic variations. It seems that anyone who mentions April and showers in the same breath is never more than a gnat’s whisker away from referencing one old saying or another. This phenomenon is called intertextuality – a cumbersome word that means, simply, that everything we have read or heard in the past influences what we write and say today.

March winds and April showers etc is by far the most-quoted adage, though the March winds are often quietly dropped, and the words altered to fit the situation. Here it features in the discourse of hay fever and garden pests, respectively:

… Allergy season approaching … If April showers and May flowers bring itching, tearing, red and swollen eyes, you are not alone.
… but for many, April showers and May flowers also signal the onset of a busy season battling the Red Imported Fire Ant

The next example is from an article written in February 1940, as World War II escalated in Europe; the curtailed adage forms part of an extended metaphor:

March winds and April showers will bring forth not flowers, but a grim harvest of slaughter

Occasionally two snippets of weather wisdom co-occur – intentionally or otherwise. This advertisement (for flat shoes) illustrates intertextuality at its vaguest – it mixes the adage with a brief echo of another old saying declaring that if March comes in like a lion it goes out like a lamb:

… the mercurial weather of March lions and April showers makes for cold toes, but Bernardo´s blizzard flats offer a brilliant solution …

As March draws to a close, it shows no sign of going out like a lamb, unless it is a fierce and frisky lamb, its woolly coat streaked with dark grey. Snow, strong winds, blizzards, and ‘Arctic conditions’ are affecting large parts of Britain. Not exactly April showers yet, then …

Statistics reflect the weather – they do not dictate it. Long-range forecasts are less accurate than we would like, but we know that the climate is gradually changing, and global warming means that both the averages and the extremes will probably shift. Will this coming April usurp April 2012 as ‘the wettest April on record’ across the UK? Or maybe, just maybe, it will be the warmest, driest, and sunniest April ‘since records began’. So beware: grammatical superlatives may apply.

*The corpora used were enTenTen08 (via Sketch Engine) and ukWaC (via Skylight).

Comments (3)
  • The satirical magazine Private Eye did a very funny piece once which purported to show the text of The Waste Land before and after Ezra Pound had a go at it. The ‘original’ text was supremely banal – the first line read “April is the coolest month”, ‘coolest’ being struck out and replaced by ‘cruellest’. You get the idea.

    Two things in your citations brought me up short: ‘tearing …. eyes’, which I read first as part of the verb ‘tear’, meaning ‘rip’, rather than the US English ‘tear’ meaning ‘produce tears’; and ‘blizzard flats’, which I would not even have identified as shoes had it not been for the surrounding context. I learn that they are lined with shearling, which would be cosy, but they still look a bit flimsy for this weather. I think I’ll stick to wellies, at least until March has roared its way out and the snow has gone.

    Posted by Liz on 25th March, 2013
  • Liz: Yes I liked the ‘blizzard flats’ and wondered whether there was an alternative range called ‘blizzard heels’, or in the spirit of J Cartner-Morley, ‘blizzard kittens’. The sentence in the advert was a bit longer: “…Bernardo´s blizzard flats offer a brilliant solution for us impatient shoe-girls”. I don’t think I’ve met an impatient shoe-girl, yet.

    As a post-script, I just heard that this month is apparently set to be ‘the coldest March for 50 years’ (BBC) – in sharp contrast to last March, which was ‘the warmest since 1957′ (in the UK). I thought this might suggest a neat way to teach superlative adjectives as well as all the language around ‘on record’ etc – just go to the Met Office website: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate

    Posted by Gill on 25th March, 2013
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