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Cloud Nine revisited

Posted by DGW on August 14, 2004

In Reply to: Cloud Nine revisited posted by Henry on August 13, 2004

: : : Our Archive suggest that the expression comes from the US Weather Bureau's classification oif clouds. That may be, but it may be only part of the truth. Here's what was printed in today's Q&A cloumn in the Times, in response for an origin for the phrase. Incidentally, I'm ingnoring the Archioval Bhuddist possible origin for the moment.

: : : Probably the first efforts at properly classifying clouds was at the beginning of the 19th century by Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, who classified them in simple terms along Linnaean lines. Then, a Quaker businessman, Luke Howard (1772-1864), classified clouds into types such as stratus, cumulus and cirrus. Howard's system was expanded and developed into the International Cloud Atlas.
: : : An abridged version of the atlas came out in 1896 and classified ten types of cloud. Number 9 was the white, fluffy, comfy-looking cumulo-nimbus. Hence to be "on cloud nine" came to symbolise floating free on a downy, white cushion, presumably without a care in the world.
: : : Robert Steele, Doune, Perthshire

: : I should probably not comment since I might be accused of claiming that all things originated in America. (Insert smiley face here.)

: John Constable also studied cloud formations. See

: The scientific study of clouds began with a London manufacturer of pharmaceutical chemicals and amateur scientist, Luke Howard (1772-1864). Howard was a near contemporary of John Constable (1776-1837). His crucial scientific contribution was a paper on "the modification (i.e., the classification) of clouds", given to the Askesian Society some time in the winter of 1802-3. Influenced by the recently published biological taxonomy of Linnaeus, he extracted from the confusion and multiplicity of cloud forms three broad genera, namely stratus, cumulus and cirrus.

: It is hard to imagine that John Constable was not acquainted with Howard's work. I suspect he may have attended some of Howard's fashionable lectures, or seen Howard's watercolour illustrations for his proposed classification scheme.

I don't think the known history of the phrase should be ignored in speculating on its etymology. According to HDAS, this "cloud nine" is recorded from 1957, as compared with "cloud thirty-nine" from 1956, "cloud 7" from 1954, and "cloud eight" (perhaps slightly different, = "drunk") from 1935. The citations do not seem to point to a derivation from an 1896 book ... unless somebody can show some more evidence ....