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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 04/20/2010

Weather sayings: Do they have any value?

By Don Lipman

* Sunshine today, chance of showers tomorrow: Full Forecast | NatCast *

Red sky in morning, sailor's warning? Image courtesy NOAA.

In earlier times, before weather satellites, radar, and even the U.S. Weather Bureau (founded around 1870), farmers, sailors, etc. needed an easy way of associating the precursors of weather changes with the actual weather that followed.

Since almost everyone was in some way connected to farming or considered themselves farmers "at heart," hundreds, if not thousands, of weather sayings and proverbs flowed forth not only from farmers, but from professionals, politicians, and others. (Ben Franklin is still considered by many historians as America's first real weatherman). One of his most famous weather quotes: "Some people are weatherwise, but most people are otherwise" has been the signature slogan used on the masthead of Weatherwise magazine for over 60 years. (The real quote is actually "Some are weatherwise, some are otherwise.")

Many of these sayings had little scientific foundation but if one was validated even just once in connection with a big storm, drought, etc., it was highly valued thereafter.

Keep reading for more on weather sayings and proverbs? Do you have a favorite? Comment and let us know...

Here's one example:

As many days old as is the moon on the day of the first snow, there will be that many snowfalls by crop planting time.

Since the first measurable snow this past winter at Reagan National Airport was on December 5th, the moon's "age" on that day was 19 days. The saying did not verify, at least in this instance, but surely it has come close in years past.

Other sayings, which are in the category of what might be called "reactive" sayings, are based on the tendency of living things to exhibit certain characteristics based on past, but not future weather, as some would suggest:

If onion skins are very thin, then winter's mild when coming in, but if onion skins are thick and tough, winter comes in cold and rough.


The belief that the wooly caterpillar predicts the winter's severity based on the width of its middle brown bands; the narrower they are, the rougher the winter will be, and vice versa.

Other sayings, however, were of more substance. Some of the most well known of these concerns the rising and setting sun:

Red sky at night, sailors' delight; Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.

or less well known:

Evening red and morning gray will set the traveler on his way; But evening gray and morning red will bring down rain upon his head.

Although these sayings have many interpretations and, in one form or another, date back to the bible, the following reasoning makes the most sense to me:

(1) Weather in the North Temperate Zone moves generally from west to east;

(2) At sunrise and sunset the clear sky can appear somewhat reddened due to the passage of its rays through a much greater volume of (often dust laden) atmosphere than when the sun is higher in the sky;

(3) However, this effect can be enhanced when the setting sun, clear of clouds, reflects upon clouds to the east. The result is an unusually red sky, but since the sun is aleady free of clouds, this often means that fair weather will follow. On the other hand, a rising sun reflecting upon clouds to the west sometimes means that foul weather is on the way.

Although they don't always hold up, these sayings do, at least, have some basis in fact. Others of this genre:

A halo around the moon means rain soon.

Since halos are caused by the moon's (or sun's) rays passing through high level cirrus clouds composed of ice crystals, and since such clouds often precede lower clouds and precipitation, this saying also has some credibility.

A related saying:

When stars huddle, we'll be stepping in puddles.

When cirrus clouds overspread the sky, they are often thick enough to obscure the stars in some places but not in others. Therefore, the stars seem to be huddled together.

"The squeak of the snow will the temperature show" is clearly a truism, for many of us have experienced the squeakiness of walking over a very cold snow cover (a'la 2/7/10). Walking over snow which is near the freezing point, however, usually results in a slushy sound, but not a "squeak."

Another old saying with at least some value:

A veering wind will dear the sky, a backing wind says storms are nigh.

In this case, a "veering" wind refers to a wind that shifts from, say, the southeast to the south to the southwest, as often happens when a storm center passes to the north and west and its warm front passes through. As this occurs, skies usually dear, at least until the associated cold front passes.

A "backing" wind (now considered somewhat archaic) refers to a wind that shifts from southeast to east to northeast, etc., as might happen if a low passes by to the south and east. When this happens, we are sometimes in for a prolonged stormy period, a nor'easter.

An obscure, partly factual, and somewhat comical saying:

Cows' tails to the west, weather's the very best; cows' tails to the east, weather's the very least.

You might think that, particularly on a windy day, farm animals, particularly cows, tend to face away from the wind. Although this may be true, another theory is that cows try to confront any invaders. Therefore, if the wind blows from the east, the cow is smart enough to know that invaders will arrive from the west (so as not to give away their scent). Ergo, the cow faces west, her tail eastward. And we all know that an east wind, particularly in winter, is often associated with storminess. On the other hand, when the cow's tail faces west, we also know that a west wind is frequently a fair-weather wind.

All in all, I think Philander Johnson had the right idea when he said:

Ohl what a blamed uncertain thing this pesky weather is; It blew and snew and then it thew, and now, by jing, it's friz.

What's your favorite, and why?

By Don Lipman  | April 20, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Education, Lipman  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Forecast: Sunny and warmer today
Next: PM Update: April showers on tap tomorrow


"When the a-- begins to bray, 'tis time to gather in the hay."...Animals such as cows, horses, and, yes, donkeys can sense the pressure drop before an approaching storm, and will tend to become exciteable a day or so before the rain.

Other sayings: "In the morning mountains, in the evening fountains."...Refers to the early buildup of cumulus clouds in the morning before a period of afternoon storms.

"When white clouds cover the heavenly way, no rain will mar your plans that day." The reference here is to fair-weather cumulus.

What is the best web site which covers weather lore?

Posted by: Bombo47jea | April 20, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Bombo47jea: There are many books and web sites on this subject, as you know. Here's one that you might like:
Don, Capital Weather Gang

Posted by: Weatherguy | April 20, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

There was a project at the Prince George's County Science Fair addressing this specific issue with some particular folk sayings. Unfortunately, I can't recall just which sayings the student focused her attentions on.

Posted by: kevinwparker | April 20, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Isn't it neat to compare what our parents & grandparents like to say, anecdotally, to real natural phenomena? :) Great write-up! kevinwparker --do you think the kids have been around long enough to have knowledge/experience to compare the folk sayings? (I barely do!)

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | April 20, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

I really enjoyed this posting and will check out that link. While I love the sayings that have a certain degree of value my personal favorite weather saying that my dad used to say was the ridiculous and absurd, "It's hot today, chile tomorrow." He is also talented in predicting the rain via the pain in his arthritic wrist.

Posted by: johnnyjoe82 | April 20, 2010 11:39 PM | Report abuse

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