What with the Northern Hemisphere’s summer lurking in the wings, I thought I’d take a look at a something I’ve often heard but puzzled over.
In the UK, there’s a saying Ne’er cast a clout till May be out. I learned this from my parents when I was a child, and they told me it meant “summer only starts once May is over”. For years I took that at face value, not realising they had simplified it for my young brain.
Even so, I often wondered what cast a clout meant, but I never thought about it when I was in a library or had an encyclopedia in my hands, and it wasn’t until the internet appeared on the scene that I looked it up.
In Old English one meaning of “clout” was cloth or clothing, and “cast”, still today, can mean to remove or discard.
So, there you have it: Never remove any warm clothing until May is over.
That got me wondering… How many other sayings do I take for granted, but don’t know the real meaning of?
One expression that sprang to mind immediately was a square meal.
We’re taught as children to feel satisfied after a square meal, so what exactly is a square meal?
Well, it turns out “square” in this sense means “honest”, “equitable” or “straightforward”. It’s like the meaning of “square” in the expression “fair and square”.
Interestingly, there is a myth that the term “square meal” comes from the Royal Navy and originated in the days when sailors were served meals on square wooden plates called trenchers. If someone informs you this is what a square meal means, you can wag your finger disparagingly and put them right 🙂
A phrase which probably does originate from the Royal Navy is toe the line.
It’s thought the most likely source was from the era of wooden ships when sailors would line up along the seams of the deck planks, with their toes touching the seam.
Fascinating stuff. Do you have any phrases or sayings you’ve used for years without knowing where they come from? Share them in the comments section below.