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The meaning and origin of the expression: Sayings and phrases about March

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Sayings and phrases about March

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The idea of March...

March. That means spring is round the corner in the UK and, as is usual here at this time of year, the weather is madly changeable. Yesterday, we had a beautifully sunny spring day; today as I look out of the window I can see nothing but freezing grey fog.

These days, changes in the weather are taken care of by a click of the central heating thermostat. In earlier times the weather meant much more and, as a consequence, featured heavily in our language. Nothing expresses people's feelings better than the proverbs they coin. As it happens, I am currently transcribing John Ray's monumental glossary A Compleat Collection of English Proverbs 4th Edition, 1768 [...and it is pretty much 'compleat' - pity the poor transcriber] and I had a look to see what the English had to say about March in the 16th and 17th centuries. It seems that the turning of the year from winter to spring and the unreliability of March weather was much on their minds. Proverbs of the day include:

- March in Janiveer, [January] Janiveer in March I fear.
- March hack ham, comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb. [Hack ham is a version of hackande, meaning 'annoyingly']
- A bushel of March dust is worth a King's ransom.
- March grass never did good.
- March winds and May fun, makes clothes white and maid's dun. [Interpret this as you will. It appears to be one that Ray was referring to in this disclaimer - "some Proverbs have given offence to sober and pious persons, as favouring too much of obscenity, being apt to suggest impure fancies to corrupt minds."]
- March many weathers.

Other 'March' phrases that we are still familiar with are 'Beware the Ides of March' and 'the mad March hare'.

MarchKnowing that March is generally accepted to be derived from Mars, the Roman god of war, I wondered if 'March' had anything to do with 'marching'. It turns out that it doesn't, but it is connected to another of the many meanings of 'march', that is 'border country'. The English borders with both Scotland and Wales were known as the Marches, and this wasn't because they were marshy. There appears to have been some 'lost in translation' business going on when 'march' was adopted into English from French. The Old French for 'Mars' (Marz) and the Old French for 'boundary' (marche) were thought to be the same word and came into English as 'March' and 'march'. That could also have been influenced by March being the boundary between winter and spring.

It's cold enough here today to be the March of the penguins. Anyway, time marches on; back to transcribing...

See other 'English Proverbs'.

See also 'as mad as a hatter'.