Red sky at night…

Red sky at night

I think language is amazing and is a big reason why I’m not a fan of the technology inspired trend to abbreviate everything and make up words out of those abbreviations (acronyms).  Let’s just say I’m glad the phase of YOLO is well and truly a distant memory in our family.  I grew up in Essex and both my parents were originally from the East End of London, born within the sound of Bow Bells, or Cockney’s.  So Rhyming Slang was something that fascinated me from an early age, so you see language has always been created, changed, messed about with and then accepted into the masses and even the Oxford English Dictionary – “sharenting” is a new one just slipped in for 2022.  This fascination has stayed with me throughout my life and sits at the core of why so many of my books at home are dedicated to the origins of phrases and sayings that everyone just seems to accept.  With that hat on this blog is going to take you on a brief phrase journey dedicated to all things weather and hopefully helps you understand where they came from and, more importantly, why they’ve endured… even if you haven’t got a clue why you still say them.

Let’s kick things off with one you are probably familiar with, “Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight.  Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.”  This saying is perhaps one of our best-known sayings, with regard to weather, and that’s partly because it’s been around since at least the 14th Century.  The first written record dates to 1395 where it appeared in the John Wycliffe Bible.  Now I know the version above but apparently there is also an alternative that replaces shepherds with sailors but as I prefer having my feet on land I’m sticking with shepherd.  As it was back then and now our lives revolve around the weather to dictate our clothing, plans and even safety measures.  Satellites, flood alerts and weather forecasts are great, but sayings are where it all started; to help plan, but why do we say it?  Is there any science behind it?  Whilst not full-proof the simple answer is yes, and let’s be honest weather forecasts aren’t full-proof either.  Here, in the northern hemisphere where the sun appears to rise in the eastern part of the sky and sets in the western part the weather systems mainly move from west to east.  So, what’s the effect?  Well redness is seen in the sky opposite the sun when light rays hit water droplets in the atmosphere.  This means that redness in the evening is a sign that clouds are moving away from us, while red sky in the morning means that water-laden air is heading our way.  Not very catchy though, hence the saying coming into play.  Now I’ve whetted the appetite let’s try another one.

Sunset in Sweden
Sunset in Sweden at the end of a particularly wet expedition. Just my luck.

“Ash before oak the summer is all a soak, oak before ash the summer is but a splash.” This is the original, full saying, but like I said we tend to shorten things somewhat so you may know the more modern versions. This one is a bit more of a stretch as it tries to predict a whole season rather than the day ahead. It’s no coincidence that oak and ash trees have been held in high regard as sacred symbols wherever they grow and a part of this stems from a need to predict weather patterns which the deities were believed to control. So it was felt that if the leaves of the ash appeared before the oak the summer would be rainy and if the oak appeared first the summer would be mostly dry. So, is there any science behind this one? Tentatively yes but I must stress no direct correlation for an entire season has ever been found. What we do know is that oak is temperature guided and opens based on warmth, whereas ash is light sensitive and reacts to daylight hours getting longer. A little bit of anecdotal observation has shown that as we see generally warmer seasons the oak has beaten the ash recently in seven out of ten years.

How about “April showers bring May flowers.”  This one is less mystical but does show how seasons have shifted recently as April certainly hasn’t been very wet over the last few years.  This saying does, however, simply reflect the correlation between the need for water for successful plant growth in the spring and early summer.  This saying featured in a poem published in 1557 by Thomas Tusser, who among other things, was a farmer.  His version appeared as “Sweet April showers do spring May flowers.”  Any science?  Of course there is, as days get longer and the earth warms air becomes less dense and rises.  As this happens it cools and water vapour forms clouds.  As temperatures increase as the day goes on the clouds reach their maximum height and the water then falls as rain.  But the rain only lasts as long as the rising temperature so as evening draws in the air cools and the rain stops. The link to April is not quite so strong anymore though.

I’m going to stop it there for this blog, but I’ll leave you with some others to delve into if the desire is there and some book recommendations.

How about these…
Trout jump high when a rain is nigh.
Raining cats and dogs.
Cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey.

And, some books to consider…
One for Sorrow: a Book of Old-fashioned Lore by Chloe Rhodes
Red Sky at Night: The Book of Lost Country Wisdom by Jane Struthers
Cassell’s Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by Nigel Rees
Origin of Everyday Things by John Acton, Tania Adams and Matt Packer

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