Weather folklore sayings and their meanings
02 September 2021 | Celia Topping
To celebrate OVO’s sponsorship of Channel 4 Weather, we’re honouring the Great British weather’s role in powering Great British homes, with regular blogs on the UK’s favourite subject!
Long before the likes of Michael Fish and Ian McCaskill graced our screens, our ancestors forecast the weather by taking clues from the natural world. This is where many of our age-old weather proverbs come from.
Some are surprisingly accurate. Others, however, are complete poppycock! Can you tell the difference?
Below, we’ve listed 10 of the most popular weather sayings. Read on to discover their origins, and find out whether they’re truly ancient insights, or just old wives’ tales.
1. Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning (or sailors’!)
Possibly one of the most well-known old sayings is actually firmly based in fact. In the UK, most of our weather comes in from the west. So it’s likely that if we enjoy a glorious sunset, the air is clear enough for the sun’s rays to pass through to reach us. This means we can look forward to clement weather the next day.
On the other hand, if dawn is heralded by a reddish hue, it means the sun’s light is bouncing off high cirrus ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. Cirrus clouds (the thin, wispy ones made up of ice crystals) usually signal a frontal system, which means bad weather. So it’s best to keep your sheep to hand and your ships in harbour...or at least carry a brolly!
2. When swallows fly high, it will be dry
There’s a lot of truth in this piece of meteorological wisdom. During dry weather, warm, thermal air rises upwards, taking insects on a sky high journey. Swallows feed on insects, so they sometimes have to fly hundreds of metres up to chase their next airborne meal.
This means that the opposite is also true: “If birds fly low, expect rain and a blow”. This is not just about feeding, but air pressure – when air pressure is high, birds can gain a high altitude. But if air pressure is low, which signals bad weather, birds can’t fly so high because the air isn’t dense enough.
It seems our feathered friends aren’t so bird-brained after all!
3. Ne’er cast a clout til May is out
This 18th century saying offers us some good, honest advice. “Clout” is an ancient word for “clothing” – and “May” not only means the month, but also the May flower or hawthorn, which blossoms in late April or early May.
So this friendly warning can be understood to mean: don’t put away your warm clothes until the May blossom is over, as there could still be a cold snap on the way.
Considering this year’s weather, that’s definitely true – keep your clouts on!
4. Rain before 7, fine by 11
As we know through experience, the Great British weather can be very changeable. This is because weather fronts move quickly across the country, off the Atlantic ocean.
So, this saying might be correct in some circumstances, but it isn’t always the case. Sometimes weather systems stick around a bit longer than 4 hours.
This proverb can be used not only about the weather, but if things have gotten off to a bad start. For example: “She lost the first 2 matches. But rain before 7, fine by 11.”
Interested to find out more about why Brits are obsessed with the weather? Read our fun blog on why talking about the weather is a national obsession.
5. When March come in like a lion, it goes out like a lamb
If March thunders in like a lion, with cold wind, rain and storms, there’s no real evidence to suggest that the end of the month will take a calmer, lamb-like exit. But it’s certainly true to say that March is often very unpredictable.
The beginning of this changeable month is often seen as the official end of winter, and the latter half as the start of more spring-like weather. Although some even switch the saying around to “in like a lamb and out like a lion”, because the weather can be so unreliable!
So whether you prefer lambs or lions, the only certainty is you’re probably in for a bit of both in March!
6. Mare’s tails and mackerel scales make tall ships carry low sails
This is a lovely old saying, whose beautifully descriptive message is actually fairly accurate. The “mare’s tails” refer to wispy, horse’s tail-like cirrus clouds and “mackerel scales” describe the patchy cirrocumulus clouds that cover the skies when the wind is shifting direction. Both cloud formations indicate that a front is approaching, and a rain storm is on the way.
So, in days gone by, sailors on board ships with long masts would bring the sails down, to avoid being buffeted around too much, and avoid damage.
7. When the icy wind warms, expect snow storms
This one is pretty spot on as far as we can see. When cold air is replaced by warm air, it means a low pressure front is coming, bringing bad weather with it. Time to get inside and get cosy!
8. If there’s a halo round the sun or moon, we can all expect rain quite soon
It’s those cirrus clouds again, helping our ancestors predict bad weather! Modern day meteorologists have confirmed that the halo effect that we sometimes see around the sun or moon is actually a reflection of light from cirrus ice crystals, high up in our atmosphere. And as we know by now, cirrus clouds are the first sign that rain is on the way.
So we’ve invented a new saying: “If you see a halo, you’d better lay low”!
9. Dew on the grass, no rain will come to pass
This saying has some truth in it. Dew is a natural form of water, which is created as water vapour condenses. This happens when the temperature drops and water vapour reaches its “dew point”.
Temperature drops usually happen under clear skies, when heat is able to radiate quickly away from the ground. So, initially, the saying is correct, and the beginning of the day at least will be fine.
But, knowing the British climate, never say never about the possibility of rain!
10. Cold night, stars bright
As we’ve seen from the proverb above, the high pressure which brings clear skies means lower temperatures at ground level. And if the sky is clear, then it’s much easier to see the stars. So it’s a thumbs up from meteorologists for this weather saying!
Weather and the health of our planet
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