The swallow in this card asks ‘Is it summer yet?’
It is as though the swallow is aware of the adage that one swallow does not make a summer.
And because it has a companion, it knows that the presence of two swallows suggests something that one swallow does not.
And so it asks ‘Is it summer yet?’
This humorous greeting card is ideal to send to a friend on any occasion, or ‘just because’.
A good time to send it to would be during the seemingly endless days while we wait for the end of winter.
Of course, winter has it’s own appeal – but bring on the lighter days of summer!
Let’s talk about swallows
We know they are swallows by their long forked tails, their blue bodies, the splash of red on their throats, and their buff undersides.
European swallows spend the winter over a huge region that stretches from sub-Saharan Africa, across Arabia and the Indian sub-continent.
The swallows that spend summer in Britain, however, spend their winter in South Africa.
As the crow flies (or as the swallow flies) it is more than 13,000 km (8,000 miles) from Cape Town to London.
Swallows can cover 300km (200 miles) a day, and like a lot of migratory birds, they time their departure to coincide with favourable southerly winds.
A bit of arithmetic shows that even with a good wind behind them, it will take the swallows about six weeks to make the journey from South Africa to the United Kingdom.
That’s quite a journey, and for such a small creature it is pretty amazing that it is able to do it in six weeks. That’s a lot faster than you or I could do, even with a favourable wind.
The traditional day when swallows are said to arrive in Britain is April 23rd, St. George’s Day.
In fact, swallows arrive in Britain all the way through late April and into May, and depart for the return flight to South Africa in September and October.
Given the length of the journey, it is no surprise that they do not all arrive on the same day!
When I think about the length of the journey and energy that a swallow has to expend to make the journey, it makes me wonder whether the effort is worth it.
And yet it must be worth it, because this pattern of migration has been going on for a long time, perhaps many thousands of years.
Which brings us to the question of exactly when it was that people started to notice exactly when the swallows arrived.
The answer is lost in the mists of time. We know, though, that by the mid-1500s the proverb One swallow does not make a summer, was already established.
Idioms, proverbs, and adages
Idioms, adages, and proverbs share the idea that they have meanings beyond the literal sense of their individual words.
The difference is that an idiom does not mean what the literal use of the words say. You have to learn the meaning of an idiom in a culture.
You’ll drive me round the bend! is an idiom. It means that you will drive me mad with your behaviour: It doesn’t mean you will literally drive me around a bend in the road or any kind of physical bend.
A proverb, on the other hand, is a piece of practical wisdom that means what it literally says and also means some wider piece of wisdom. An adage is simply a proverb that has been in use a long time.
My particular favourite adage is It’s no use flogging a dead horse. It is literally true that there is no benefit to doing it, but of course it really means there is no use pursuing a course of action that has no chance of success.
One swallow does not make a summer has a literal meaning, but it is a piece of wisdom that has been around for centuries, and so it is an adage.
The earliest recorded use of the adage
In The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs by Jennifer Speake, the author cites a statement by the humanist scholar Erasmus who lived from 1466 to 1536.
He is referred to in a book, Erasmus’ Adages, published in 1539 and written by a Richard Taverner, wherein Erasmus is said to have said:
It is not one swalowe that bryngeth in somer. It is not one good qualitie that maketh a man good.
What the adage means
In the narrow, literal sense, we understand that seeing many swallows means that something good (summer) is coming soon. We also understand that we cannot infer this from seeing a single swallow.
On the other hand, we know that there are many swallows in the world: We just don’t know where they are.
If we see a swallow, we know it is not unique. It is not the only swallow in existence. But where are the other swallows?
Perhaps the swallow we have seen has been blown off course and just kept going. Or perhaps it set off early, and its companions are still hunkered down somewhere warm in Africa.
We know we cannot say that summer is coming from seeing just one swallow.
That is the literal sense. There is, however, a broader sense to the adage. That is that a single event cannot be taken to indicate a positive trend.
Speaking logically, when we encounter something that none of us have ever seen before, we can say it is unique. We cannot logically infer or deduce that two of that thing exist.
There may be more of them, but until we see another, then we have no reason, no logical reason to think there will definitely be more of them.
On the other hand, when we encounter two of something, that in itself suggests a succession, a continuum. It suggests, logically, that there may well be three, or four, or a million of that thing.
Inside the mind of this swallow
What is going on in the mind of the swallow that asks whether it is summer yet? Is it thinking that it surely must be summer by now?
Or is it a droll and witty swallow, passing the time on a long journey to the United Kingdom from South Africa?