The origin of “cloud” is very down to earth

Last week, fired FBI director James Comey testified that President Trump asked him to “lift the cloud” cast by the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia. This cloud, though, isn’t blowing over—something also true of the surprising origin of the word cloud.

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This cloud looks like…a pile of rocks. (Pixabay)

Cloddy roots 

We often think of clouds as light and fluffy, so of course they originally meant anything but. Back in Old English, cloud—or clúd, evidenced as early as 893—was a “mass of rock” or “hill.” Related to the words clot and clod, clúd appears to drift in from an ancient Germanic root meaning “lump,” and it may be cognate to the Latin glomus (“ball-shaped mass,” conglomeration) and the Greek gloutos (“buttocks,” glutes). 

Middle English speakers, though, weren’t lying on their backs in a field, finding forms in the passing clouds. Apparently, they were looking down at the ground noting that clouds look a lot like rock clusters. A cumulus cloud, after all, comes from the Latin for “heap.”

As the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology observes, the modern cloud, in all its condensed water vapor, replaced the usual Old English word wolcen, “cloud,” later “sky” and “heavens,” surviving in the poetic archaism, welkin. Cloud also helped shift the meaning of sky, which originally could signify “cloud” in addition to its modern sense. Sky is a Scandinavian borrowing, with the Old Norse sky itself specifically meaning “cloud.”

Cloud formations

By the late 1300s, cloud had metaphorically extended to a large, indistinct body of creatures, such as insects or birds. The 1400–1500s gave us the “overshadowing” cloud, naming anything that darkens or obscures. In the clouds, or being “out of touch with reality,” is by the 1650s. The technological metaphor of a cloud emerges in the late 1980s and 1990s, with the cloud, for remote data storage, attested by 1997.

With Attorney General Jeff Sessions and son-in-law-qua-adviser Jared Kushner now testifying about the Russia probe, Trump is still under the cloud (early 1600s)—and far from cloud nine. Despite many fanciful theories, the origin and significance of the nine in expression for extreme happiness, evidenced by the 1950s, is well, cloudy.

m ∫ r ∫

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