“In like a lion, out like a lamb” has always seemed a straightforward enough proverb: when March starts, it’s still winter, and by the end of the month spring has begun. True, in many climates the weather hasn’t quite reached the lamb stage by the end of the month—it’s more like a surly cat, maybe, or one of those awful territorial honking geese. But we get the idea. I have seen the phrase referred to as an “eighteenth-century saying” in more than one unreliable Internet source, while Wikipedia calls it “an old Pennsylvania” saw.
As it turns out, there are a few origin theories. There’s the stars, for one. At this time of year, Leo is the rising sign; by April, it’s Aries. (“Kid” just doesn’t have quite the same ring as “lamb,” though.) Some have pointed out that Jesus arrives as the sacrificial lamb, but will return as the Lion of Judah. Which, weather-wise, means a false spring.
One of the earliest citations is in one Thomas Fuller’s 1732 compendium, Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British. The authors give the wording as “Comes in like a Lion, goes out like a Lamb.”
In fact, the book has several excellent March proverbs, which don’t seem to have had the same lasting power:
So many mists in March you see / So many frosts in May will be.
A Peck of March-Dust, and a Shower in May / Makes the Corn green, and the Fields gay.
March many-Weathers rain’d and blow’d / But March grass never did good.
I suppose we can see why that last one didn’t catch on. You can just imagine a group of old farmers or alewives sitting around and spinning seasonal proverbs of a winter evening. And then they get to that one—let’s call him Yeoman Goode—and he kind of panics, and that comes out, and there’s radio silence.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.