Sunday, 1 August 2010


August 1st is Lammas Day, the first day of autumn. Now when so many people take their holidays in August, this month is usually treated like the height of summer, but there is already a distinct chill of autumn in the air - at least where I am in Kent. I'm sitting by the door into my garden, looking out at the rain falling on a lawn littered with crisp dead leaves. It could be November!

Lammas is also the beginning of harvest; the first part of the word comes from the Old English hlaf, 'loaf'. It was the day on which loaves of bread made from the first corn were blessed at the harvest festival, and it was one of the quarter-days observed in Scotland and northern England until a few centuries ago. But what intrigued me when I looked it up was the third entry under 'Lammas' in the OED:

3. latter Lammas (day), a day that will never come. at latter Lammas: humorously for ‘never’.
1567 GASCOIGNE Instruct. Making Verse Posies (1575) Many writers..draw their sentences in length, & make an ende at latter Lammas.

1576 GASCOIGNE Steele Glas. This is the cause (beleue me now my Lorde)..That courtiers thriue, at latter Lammas day.

1642 FULLER Holy State. IV. xv. 316 This your will At latter lammas wee'l fulfill.

a1734 NORTH Lives of Norths (1826) I. 4 The very expectation of them puts me in mind of latter Lammas.

1805 W. TAYLOR in Ann. Rev. III. 244 This convocation was some~what unbecomingly postponed to latter Lammas.

1857 KINGSLEY Two Years Ago vii, A treatise..which will be published the season of Latter Lammas, and the Greek Kalends.

I'm very fond of quaint expressions for 'a day that will never come'. My favourites include when two Sundays come together and not in a month of Sundays, as well as St Tib's Eve and the twelfth of never. The OED has now added to this list on the Greek Calends which it explains is "humorous for Never; since the Greeks used no calends in their reckoning of time". That's donnish humour, I suppose. At the opposite extreme, expressions meaning 'for ever' also tend to have an unearthly ring to them, like 'forever and a day' or the fantastic phrase 'world without end', which is such a stroke of genius as a translation of in saecula saeculorum.. Although it's most familiar from the King James Bible, it also makes me think of Shakespeare's Sonnet 57: "nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour / Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you..." Waiting for a lover who would only come, perhaps, at latter Lammas.

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