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Clouds with and without a silver lining

Engl. cloud belongs so obviously with clod and its kin that there might not even be a question­­­­ of its origin (just one more lump), but for the first recorded sense of clūd in Old English, which was “rock, cliff.” Some etymologists even doubted whether we are dealing with the same word (Skeat’s reference to the old root meaning “stick together” does not go far enough for “rock”): perhaps in the remote past English had clūd “rock” and its homonym clūd “cloud”? This was the opinion of Friedrich Kluge. I could not find the place in the early editions of his dictionary where he says so (perhaps this statement occurs elsewhere; unfortunately, the reference does not show up in my bibliography). However, in 1899 a thin book called English Etymology appeared in London. Its authors were Friedrich Kluge and Fredrick Lutz, but Lutz must have been only the translator of the German text. Although the booklet was widely consulted, it contains little durable information. In the entry cloud, one reads that OE clūd and Engl. cloud are “scarcely identical…. source and history quite unknown.”

Kluge missed the solution, while the OED came close to it, for in the entry on cloud James Murray mentioned cumulus. One more step would have broken the spell on the puzzle. Weekley also realized that cumulus contained the key to the riddle but did not go further. The editors of The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology removed the reference to cumulus and only said that cloud is “probably” related to clod.  They also repeated the well-known fact that clūd had superseded Old Engl. wolcen (a word already featured in the present series on kl-formations). Wolcen is related to the now archaic welkin “sky” and has cognates elsewhere in West Germanic.

The question that should have been asked is: “What was the difference between wolcen and clūd?” I think we can risk an almost certain answer. Let us look at the situation in Russian. That language has two words: oblako “cloud” and tucha “dark cloud” (stress on the first syllable in both). The mass of vapor we see in the sky can be white or nearly black, and it is convenient to have a separate word for each.  Russian also has morok (now used only in a figurative sense, but in the past it meant “dark cloud,” a synonym of tucha; compare mrak “darkness”). Among the Indo-European cognates of tucha we find nouns and verbs designating “thunder” (so in Gothic) and (perhaps unexpectedly) “rainbow” (so in Polish; the thunderstorm has apparently passed). But what matters is that many allied words of tucha mean “compact; thick; dense; compressed; strong; coagulated” (by the way, the Russian adjective tuchnyi means “fat”). All of them point to some sort of accumulation of matter (remember cumulus!).

This is what Shakespeare called rack.
This is what Shakespeare called rack.

The English word cumulus has no menacing overtones. When we see round masses heaped one on the other in the sky, we may think of thunder, but usually we don’t, because the color of the cumulus is more often light than dark. I believe that Old English had a pair of words similar to Russian tucha and oblako and that clūd corresponded to tucha. It denoted a dark storm cloud, while wolcen was reserved for the counterpart of oblako. The origin of wolcen is not entirely clear. It may even be related to oblako (which means “something that enwraps”), but the traditional hypothesis connects it with words for “wetness; moisture.” Anyway, if my guess is right, a wolcen did not make people think of rain and thunder, while a clūd did. And it was the clūd that looked like a rock or a cliff: it resembled a lump (the meaning present in so many kl-words), something hard and strong. Indubitable analogs of a cloud likened to a rock or a cliff are hard to find, but Sanskrit ghana– “solid mass” and possibly “mountain” has been attested with the sense of “cloud.” For the disappearance of Engl. wolcen we have no explanation, but it made English poorer.

Even though many kl-words are sound-imitative or sound symbolic, it does not follow that they can have no cognates outside Germanic. So far, we have looked at the kl-words that were limited to West Germanic, but, when researching onomatopoeia and sound symbolism, one can expect to run into suspicious siblings all over the map. As always, I’ll leave out unprofitable fantasies but will mention the proximity of cloud, understood as a mass, and crowd. Francis A. Wood, once (a hundred years ago and in the last quarter of the nineteenth century) a leading American etymologist, even though his name appears in many dictionaries with the sole intent of reprimanding him and showing that he was wrong, made conjectures that are a constant source of inspiration (at least to me), once wrote an article titled “Rime-Words and Rime-Ideas” (rime stands for rhyme) and compared cloud and crowd. He did not say that they were related; yet he pointed out that words tend to form alliances regardless of their origin.

Silver lining all over the place.
Silver lining all over the place.

The only non-Germanic noun that has been suggested as a congener of cloud is Classical Greek gloutós “buttocks, rump.” The comparison was prompted by a perfect phonetic match (I’ll dispense with the details). But the meanings made researchers wonder. As long as we agree that cloud referred to an object that looked hard and solid (“a cliff, a rock, a mountain”), one’s backside may fit the agenda. Gloutós appeared in respectable dictionaries long ago, and quite a few cautious etymologists still find this derivation feasible, even though they usually hedge enough to secure a retreat. If gloutós belongs here, then Slovenian glúta “swelling” also does. Germanic kl– corresponds to non-Germanic gl-, and gl– occupies a prominent place in the formation of sound-imitative and sound symbolic words everywhere.

Guess what the caption should be.
Guess what the caption should be.

Thus, the rights of cloud to belong to the venerable kl-group have been restituted. It may be of some interest to our readers to know what ideas give rise to designating “cloud” in various languages. The choices are not too numerous. Wetness, enwrapping, and being a lump-like mass have already been mentioned. The English word sky goes back to the concept of “shadow” and means “cloud” in all the Scandinavian languages (sky is indeed a borrowing from Scandinavian: Old Icelandic ský; it pushed aside but did not kill the native heaven).  The union of “cloud” and “sky” is common. Equally common is the union between “cloud” and “mist.” Here, the anthologized example is Latin nūbēs and its continuation in the Romance languages (Italian and Spanish nube, French nue and nuage). Engl. nebulous makes us think of mist and fog (and so does German Nebel), but the semantics of such words is fluid: Russian nebo means “sky” (perhaps at one time it meant “overcast skies”; we don’t know). The situation in English (the development from “congested mass resembling a rock” to “cloud of any shape and color”) is by far not the most common one, but, if we take into consideration the difference between the clouds driven by the wind (Shakespeare called them rack) and dark storm clouds, a portent of a thunderstorm, and remember that the modern language has one word for “cloud” instead of two, we will see that there is nothing out of the ordinary in this choice.

I promised a silver lining. Surely, having a viable etymology of a hard word qualifies for one.

Images: (1) Storm Clouds by Unsplash, Public Domain via Pixabay. (2) Sun Clouds by azalee36, Public Domain via Pixabay (3) “head in the clouds” by Charles Kremenak, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Featured image: Sky by giografiche, Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Purushotham

    The origin of the phrase ” Cloud with a silver lining” is from ‘Comus’ by John Milton.

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