Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 16, 2016

Cuckoo Cloud Etymology Land

I started writing a blog post about clouds in photography.

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Then I wondered, “Where does the word ‘cloud’ come from?”

I know, I know, it comes from the sky. Cymbal crash. Sorry, not good enough. Let’s go on.

I knew Middle English already had the word cloud, which would’ve been pronounced clood. Where did that come from? Middle English evolved from Old English, with big injections of words from French and Latin. However, the Old English word for “cloud” was weolcan, (familiar from Shakespeare and elsewhere as the now archaic “welkin,” meaning “sky”). I recalled an Old English word, clūd, pronounced the same as Middle English cloud, but clūd meant “stone,” “rock” or “hill” (we still have “clod,” which is related). The fact that they were homophones, I assumed, must be coincidence.

French has nuage; not even close, derived from Latin nubes, also far off the mark. Where did cloud originate?

It was off to the dictionaries. As it turns out, somewhere before 1300, our English-speaking predecessors began associating a mass of clouds with hills standing against the horizon. Yes, our “cloud” is straight from Middle English cloud and is the same word as Old English clūd. From stones and hills to clouds.

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There is a mystery to ponder: How did that happen? Any single speaker of Middle English around 1200 or so might have looked up from digging stones out of the barley or onion field, weary of taxes and oppression and the prospect of barley and onions for dinner (again!), gazed into the sky as it clouded up, threatening rain, and thought those gathering clouds piling up looked like hills. But how did a significant number of his contemporary serfs, villeins and peasants, fiefholders, beadles, shire-reeves, priests and constables start using it to the extent that it supplanted the perfectly good weolcan to signify a cloud?

It’s lost in the clouds of time. Perhaps some influential group ─ the clergy, administrators for the court, a particularly powerful class like knights or even carters with their broad reach across England ─ took it up and it gained currency.

Today we look to social media or global business as the generators of new coinages, but the “social media” of 12th and 13th-Century England was the spoken word. The handwritten word (no mass printing yet) circulated only among a limited number of literate individuals. Somehow, though, it caught on.

My own theory (completely without any evidence) is that it originated in Old English oral poetry, which made great use of metaphorical substitution, as I’ve described in several blog posts over the years. Oral, hence no written record of its evolution and adoption.

If you know an aspiring medieval linguist looking for a dissertation topic, send this one to them. Ask them to let me know what they find out. I have my head in the clods … I mean clouds.

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© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017

Two notes:

Both Old English clūd and weolcan originated in older Germanic languages and were part of the original word hoard of the earliest speakers of what is now English.

Dictionaries I consulted included The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed.; The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Clark-Hall.

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Responses

  1. Very good, one of my favorites, clouds.

    Like

  2. Very interesting!

    Like

  3. Nice combination of scholarship and beautiful photos. Congrats on both!

    Like

  4. An interesting exploration. And photographs are very good.

    Sometimes, sky with or without clouds is able to change a photograph completely, make excellent from mediocre and vice verca.

    Liked by 1 person


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