Fishing boats, John Madsen

Fishing boats float on a glassy sea somewhere on Port Phillip Bay. They form a pair of watercolours painted by my father when I was ten. It’s not the boats that capture me but the way the sea and sky meld, the watery billows of cloud. I remember my father talking about the challenges of catching the sky, the shifting forms of the clouds. When he looked to the sky, he’d talk of Turner and Constable and my sisters and I, caught by Dad’s painterly appreciation, would pour over the art magazines he ordered every month staring at the cloud laden paintings by these sky masters.

“If a general and characteristic name were needed for modern landscape art, none better could be invented than ‘the service of clouds‘ ” (John Ruskin, Of Modern Landscape, Modern Painters ,1856)

During Melbourne’s lengthy lockdown, I became again drawn to clouds and the weather heralded by their gatherings or absence. Apt, therefore, to study the orthography of cloud . Inevitably, when pursuing one word, another beckons and another, so wander with me on these nebulous trails to consider clouds.

Cloud is a free base element with an accumulation of morphological relatives.

There have been surprises: cloudly, cloudful and cloudery. The latter, cloudery, less frequent but still current. Many words, like the clouds themselves, have thinned out and disappeared over time. Cloudiously (1602), ‘in a clouded or veiled manner; obscurely’ (O.E.D.) has long since evaporated.

Etymology and morphology influence the orthographic phonology of cloud. Gathering possible morphological relatives, as above, provides evidence to validate the base element <cloud>.

Analysis loosens a word into its elements where the boundaries are signalled by the plus sign. Each hypothesised element is supported by evidence citing examples with the same element. Angle brackets signify that the elements contained within are to be announced ( spelled aloud) rather than pronounced.

The matrix is an elemental portrait of a word family. It reveals the substrate of a morphological family. The matrix allows contemplation of related words where the denotation echoes throughout. Matrices can be small shining a light on a few key relatives or, like this one, more extensive. The elements are assembled in a lexical algorithm with the rewrite arrow prompting synthesis (placing together). It’s at this point that changes due to suffixing are made. Cloud compounds frequently .

Graphemes occur within an element, so noting an element’s boundaries and where a particular grapheme is positioned within the element is critical. The free base element <cloud> is composed of 4 graphemes: three single letter (uniliteral) graphemes and the vowel digraph <ou> in the medial position of the base element where it represents /aʊ/, a vowel glide.  

<ou> corresponding to the phoneme /aʊ/ occurs initially ( out, oust, ounce) and more frequently medially (ground, flounce, foul) but it does not occur in the final position of a lexical free base element.

When working with students the meaning of each word is discussed, announced and the position of the digraph noted.

Yes, there are words with a final <ou>, but English graphemes often represent more than one phoneme and the <ou> digraph corresponds to several phonemes.

Considering words with a final <ou>

When final to the base element, the grapheme <ou> corresponds to the phoneme /uː/ as seen in the exotic imports below:

Bayou (n) / ˈbʌɪuː / The name for ‘the marshy off-shoots and overflowings of lakes and rivers’ particularly in the southern states of the US. via French American, from Choctaw bayuk, attested in 1766.

Caribou (n) /ˈkarᵻbuː/ the name applying to ‘reindeer belonging to any of several subspecies found in North America’ . The word caribou carries echoes of the First Nation Mi’kmaq ( Micmac) people who first occupied the maritime eastern provinces of Canada. The Mi’kmaq were the people most likely encountered by Italian explorer John Cabot in 1497. Caribou, attested in English in 1660s, derived from ‘Micmac*qaripu , from an earlier form of qalipu derived from an Algonquian verb with the sense ‘to shovel snow, to clear away snow’ .

Remou (n) / rəˈmuː / attested 1780, is an ‘area of turbulence in a stream, an eddy; (also) a region of turbulence in the air’ perhaps from an unattested Anglo-Norman or Middle French derivative of moldremoudre: ‘to grind’ suggesting the ‘swirling movement of the water with the rotating movement of a grindstone.’

 Marabou (n) /ˈmarəbuː/ refers to a tuft or plume of the soft white downy feathers from the wings or tail of the marabou stork; or an exceptionally white kind of raw silk. Marabou ultimately derives from an Arabic dialect word for a holy man, such as Moroccan Arabic mrābiṭ derived from past participle of rabaṭ to tie, bind. This word became bound to the bird in Arabic. (OED)

Plate xxv ( fold-out illustration) of grallatorial birds including the marabou from The Natural History of the Animal Kingdom for Young People, Kirby,1889

However, it was in reference to feathers that marabou was first attested in English in 1819 and secondly as a specific bird name. Perhaps as the OED suggests, this occurred because the commercial product was known before the animal itself. The adoption of marabout ‘ via the intermediary language of French without the final -t, ‘perhaps reflects borrowing that was primarily in the spoken context rather than through books.’

Feathers of all kinds adorned women’s hats in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ostrich and marabou feathers were especially popular as dress and hat trimmings. Fortunately early in the twentieth century, plumage laws were passed to limit the ‘ indiscriminate slaughter of birds for decorative purposes’. (Yarwood,D Illustrated Encyclopedia of World Costume.)

Padou (n),/ˈpaduː/, a silk tape or ribbon, is a toponym , named after the French for Padua, Italy where the textile was made.

Bayou, caribou, remou, marabou and padou have been adopted into English joining a small collection of imported words where the final <ou> signals connections with French.

The Etymology of Cloud

Cloud has been spelled variously through time and in the Middle English period as cludclod, clodecludecloydkloude, –1500s clowd(e), –1600s cloude, –1700s clowd, and cloud. It was the latter with its medial <ou> digraph that endured to become the standard.

Cloud is attested in Old English, clud, where it denoted “mass of rock, hill.” It is perhaps etymologically related to clod and clot all united by an underlying lumpy clinginess. However, cloud’s metaphoric extension to the lumpy, nebulous formations in the sky occurred later in its development, in 1300, and the reference to rocks gradually faded from common use: “The last entry for cloud in the original ‘rock mass’ sense was  in Middle English Compendium of 1475.” (Online Etymology Dictionary).

 Yet people must have stared at the sky before 1300 to consider the watery vapour above and its changing formations. Before 1300 the vaporous masses or wisps were known as welkin which derived from Old English wolcenwolcn. Wolcen-wrycende was ‘cloud producing’ in Old English. Today the cloudiness has faded from welkin; it’s narrowed in sense to ‘heaven’ or ‘sky’. Herman Melville made welkin memorable when describing Billy Bud, the pure of heart, the Christ like innocent, as ‘welkin-eyed’.

Cloud is a vague general term. However, the older regional terms are poetically specific. A fossick in the OED reveals these cloud-filled terms:

A rack in 1400 referred to a mass of clouds moving quickly, also known as ‘cloud field’ in 1841.

The ‘rockiness’ of clouds still lingered in the imagination in 1400 as the secondary sense of ‘tor’ referred to ‘a heavy mass of clouds’ (OED). 

Light clouds driven by wind were called a scud’ from 1670 onwards.

From 1300 onwards, ‘overcast ‘, a compacted compound, meant ‘to cover or overspread with cloud or haze’; and ‘melt‘ referenced clouds dissolving into either clear weather or coalescing into rain.

  ‘ Behold the clowdes did melt, And showers large came pooring downe’.(1567,  A. Golding)

Small clouds were called :

‘Speck‘ in 1744 , ‘cloudlets‘ in 1788, or a ‘shred ‘ in 1836.

Small clouds portending rain were often called ‘colt’s tail ‘from 1744, ‘water wagon‘ from 1815 or ‘sop‘ from 1828.

An ‘ox-eye‘ from 1598 was a nautical term for clouds ‘portending a storm, particularly a violent storm, esp. off the coast of Africa'(OED) and abull’s eye‘ in 1849 indicated  ‘a little dark cloud, reddish in the middle, chiefly appearing about the Cape of Good Hope’ (OED)

Flat topped clouds were termed a ‘bank ‘from 1601 onwards.

Streaks of clouds may be called ‘flakes‘ in 1744, or ‘wefts‘ (1822), or even ‘streamers‘ (1871) and indicated vapour or snow. A ‘scart‘ (1861) could refer to a gust, a puff of wind, or a mere strip of cloud.

Wispy, high altitude clouds were known as ‘mare’s tails‘ (1775) or ‘hen scrattin‘ (1824) and often heralded stormy weather as did ‘goat’s hair(1844) ‘ a long straight streak of cloud foretelling storms.’

Mares’ tails and cloudlets

Large piled clouds were called variously :castle- clouds’ ( 1686), ‘stacken-cloud‘ (1823), or ‘trade-wind cloud ‘(1902).

Roundish and fleecy cloudlets were often referred to with mackerel epithets such asmackerel-back ‘1814, or ‘mackerel clouds1830 or ‘mackerel flecks(1940) or ‘mackerel sky1667. 

There’s a brutish power in ‘thunder-head ‘(1851)’ a rounded mass of cumulus cloud seen near the horizon projecting above the general body of cloud, and portending a thunder-storm’. There’s a suggestion of force too behind the term ‘storm-breeder ‘,1867, and this brutishness is metaphorically embedded in ‘hogback‘, 1933, the New Zealand term for a cloud with a distinctive arched top.

Rain storm Over Sea, Constable,1824-28,Royal Academy of Arts

The English polymath Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703) architect and scientist, too had looked to the sky.

Memorial Portrait of Robert Hooke for Christ’s Church Oxford by 2011, Rita Greer

Hooke and several of his contemporaries kept weather diaries. He, along with Christopher Wren, devised weather instruments to record the daily variations. Recognizing the lack of common terminology, he urged his contemporaries to note their observations daily and suggested a standard set of descriptions for cloud formations in ‘Constitution & Face of the Sky’:

‘Hairy‘ to indicate ‘small, thin and high exhalations’;

‘Checkerd blew, a cleer Sky with many great white round clouds such as are very usuall in Summer.’,

‘Let Waterd, signify a Sky that has many high thin & small clouds looking almost like waterd tabby, calld in some places a maccarell sky from the Resemblance it has to the spots on the Backs of those fishes.’

from A Method of Making a History of Weather, Robert Hooke, in Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal-Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (London, 1667)

Local expressions persisted and while poetic and evocative as with Hooke’s ‘waterd tabby‘ analogy – the ‘tabby‘ referring to taffeta silk and its wavy coloration – these expressions lacked scientific precision and a common intelligibility.

This changed in 1802 when amateur British meteorologist Luke Howard gave a lecture On Modification of Clouds to members the Askesian Society, the philosophical debating society for scientific thinkers (1796-1807). He proposed a universal naming of the three fundamental types of cloud classification: cirrus, cumulus, stratus. His Latinate cloud names, describing the outward features of each cloud type, was inspired by Linnaeus’s natural history classification. Howard’s classification took into account the ephemeral mutability of clouds so as well as the three main cloud types, he added and named intermediate stages with four more compounds: cirrocummulus, cirrostratus, cumulostratus and cumulocirrostratus, the latter formed from three base elements, is also known as nimbus “the rain cloud”. Howard described this as “a horizontal sheet, above which the cirrus spreads, while the cumulus enters it laterally and from beneath.”

The Latin etymon sternere ~ stratum and its denotation of ‘spread, scatter, strew‘ lies beneath the spreading stratus clouds. Stratify, substrate, prostrate are morphologically related – they share the same base element. The analysis of of stratocumulus and prostrate may result in consternation! <strate> is complex base element. A matrix can be constructed with this as the base element. Yet <-at> is a Latinate stem suffix and when final is made recognisably English by the single, final, non-syllabic <e>: <pro+str+ate>. If the Latin suffixes <-um> and <-at-> are removed,<str> remains, a simple base element. English also has ‘probably’ acquired consternation ,<con + stern + ate + ion>, from the infinitive form of the Latin etymon sternere with its underlying suggestion of things things strewn and in disarray, hence confusion and dismay.

Street too has evolved from this Latinate etymon sternere~stratum brought to England with the Romans and their road building ways as ‘via strata’ : paved road.The lexical item street and the physical streets such as Watling Street ( from London to near Shrewsbury) and Ermine Street ( from London to the Humber) remained long after the sound of Roman footsteps had faded. It was incorporated early into Old English as ‘stret’, ‘strǣt’ and is found in place names such as Strætford in 1016, today’s Stratford on Avon.

Cirrocumulus clouds, cloud study 1803 – 1811, Luke Howard.

Cirrocumulus, attested in 1803, is a connected compound formed from two bound base elements and a connecting vowel letter <-o-> usually signalling Greek origins: <cirr +o +cume+ule +us > . It is derived from the Latinate etymons cirrus and cumulus. Cirrus denotes ‘a lock, curl, ringlet, or tuft of hair’, ‘ the hair on the forehead of a horse’ and a variety of tufts or tendrils: ‘tuft of feathers or crest of birds’, the arms of polypi, ‘filaments of plants similar to tufts of hair’, a ‘fringe upon a tunic.’ Wispy indeed. Latin cumulus denotes a piling up, an amassing, a heap – an accumulation which derived from a Proto Indo European root *keue- ‘to swell’ as well as ‘vault , hole’. The use of the Hellenic connecting vowel letter <-o-> with Latinate base elements occurs in post classical Latin where compounds were formed by analogy with Greek compounds as you see in the matrix <str>. And yes, intriguingly, both cumulostratus (1813) and stratocumulus (1845) exist in English referring to the same cloud formations.

Nimbus was adopted directly from Latin into English in 1606 (OED) long before Howard classified his clouds. It then had the sense of ‘a bright or luminous cloudenveloping or surrounding a deity or supernatural being’, extending to a ‘halo’ in 1728 and finally adding the greyer, gloomier sense of a rain cloud in 1776. Despite its damp greyness , Howard could still see a shimmer of associated luminescence: ‘The nimbus, although in itself one of the least beautiful clouds, is yet now and then superbly decorated with its attendant the rainbow’. ( 1803, OED)

Perhaps it was the distant association with light and power that caught JK Rowling’s imagination when she named a powerful, high-flying broomstick, the nimbus 2000 in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:

“It’s not any old broomstick, it’s a Nimbus Two Thousand. What did you say you’ve got at home, Malfoy, a Comet Two Sixty? Comets look flashy, but they’re not in the same league as the Nimbus.” (Ron to Malfoy, J.K. Rowling, 1997)

Cloud Painters

The paintings of John Constable (1776 – 1837) and J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851) are dominated by cloud formations. Both produced sketchbooks filled with cloud studies. Had they read Howard’s paper and embraced his nomenclature? Did Howard’s description and explanation of cloud forms sharpen their vision? Or was it the vapours of the time – art merging with scientific thinking?

Constable had annotated a copy of Researches about Atmospheric Phenomena (2nd edition 1815) by Thomas Forster particularly the first chapter ” Of Mr Howard’s Theory of the origin and Modification of Clouds” (Thornes,J.,1979). This suggests that Constable was familiar with Howard’s work and interested in cloud formation. Yet it’s impossible to assume Constable’s cloud studies were the result of Howard’s classification. As Harris points out, he did not adopt Howard’s terminology in his annotated drawings, (Harris,A., Weatherland – Writers and Artists under English Skies). Yet, nevertheless, Constable had his head in the clouds.

Harris states, ‘it took practical knowledge to parse the sky’ and that the weather had been ‘the currency of Constable’s childhood’. Constable’s father owned several Suffolk windmills where he was apprenticed for a year. This experience and the month on board a ship sailing close to the English coast ‘seeing all kinds of weather’ gave him an ability to read the sky which is translated so powerfully in his art.

Cloud Study, 1830-35, J.Constable,Metropolitan Museum of Art

I have done a good deal of skying John Constable letters, October 23 ,1821(OED)

Skying, used nominally, is first attested in 1792, in reference to painting: ‘The action or activity of making an artistic study of the sky, or of painting or sketching the sky in a picture‘ (OED).

Skying is composed of two elements :< sky + ing > . Sky , a free base element, was a Scandinavian adoption, attested in 1200 and derived from Old Norse sky where it denoted cloud ultimately evolving from a Proto Indo European root *(s)keu- to cover, conceal. Sky and its inherent cloudiness gradually obscured Old English heofon, (present day heaven) which earlier referred to the upper regions of air. Gradually sky acquired this sense nudging aside heofon which became ‘restricted to religious and figurative uses already in Middle English’ (OED).


Cloud Study, John Constable, 1821

Turner too was drawn to the ephemeral quality of the sky. His output was prolific – over 500 oil paintings, 2,000 watercolours and 30,000 works on paper. Turner was influenced by the technology of the time , coal powered boats replacing sails and like many of the romantics, he was interested in expressing the sublime, the sense of overwhelming awe.

Sublime <sub + lime> is derived from a classical Latin preposition sub and the Latin etymon limen: “lintel, threshold, sill“. The prefix <sub->has a variety of forces: below, under, beneath, imperfectly, beyond but also: up, away, towards. It’s the suggestion of up and towards that is the force in sublime and it’s this sense of approaching the threshold of nature’s power, moving upwards towards the limits that is present in many of Turner’s paintings. There is a claim that Turner was lashed Odysseus- like to the mast of a ship in order to sail close to the threshold of a storm. This experience and view of the sublime is interpreted in Snow Storm. The swirling cloud, and turbulent seas meet and coalesce around the steam boat. Whether this lashing to the mast was true or not, the viewer too experiences the force of nature and our gaze is upwards to the swirling power in this sublimely storm-clouded sky.

Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth
Snow Storm-Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,JMW Turner, 1842

Cloud forms float through many common expressions:

The origins of cloud nine attested in 1950, is vague. One popular interpretation is that it referred to the International Cloud Atlas of 1895 portraying ten cloud types of which cloud nine, the cumulonimbus, with its grand cushiony puffiness looked to be the most comfortable of all cloud types – hence a sense of pleasure, as if in heaven. However, this is thought to be rather unlikely. The number nine and ‘use of the largest one figure integer, nine, is sometimes used for emphasis’ according to Shipley (Online Etymology Dictionary)

Flying insects are collectively labelled ‘clouds’. Edmund Spenser in 1590 writes:  ‘cloud of cumbrous gnattes doe him molest.‘(The Faerie Queen) In 1667 John Milton writes of ‘ A pitchy cloud of Locusts‘.

To be ‘under a cloud’ , attested in 1605, suggests that one is ‘ in trouble or difficulties; out of favour; with a slur on one’s character’ (OED)

One of several epithets referring to Zeus is the hyphenated compound cloud-assembler (n.) a translation of Greek νεϕεληγερέτα, nephelyereta, from Cowper’s 1791 translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.(OED )

Cloud-cuckoo-land, another hyphenated compound, is attested in English in 1824, and derives from Greek Νεϕελοκοκκυγία from νεϕέλη: nephele ‘cloud’ and κόκκυξ ‘cuckoo’, the name of the realm ‘built by the birds to separate the gods from mankind’ from Aristophanes’s Birds (OED).

Greek νεϕέλη : nephele, νέφος: nephos  : ‘cloud’, floats in the connected compound nephology: ‘the study of clouds’ < neph +o + loge + y >. Nepheloid, 1848, was once applied to ‘cloudy urine’. In 1965 nepheloid resurfaced as a term in oceanography to refer to ‘a layer of cloudy or turbid water’ – the nepheloid layer.(OED)

Nebula, from classical Latin nebula mist, fog, cloud, was also applied to ‘cloudy’ urine and in 1661 to a film or membrane over the eye and later to cloudiness of the cornea. Robert Hooke saw nebulæ or hazy sunspots in the body of the sun in 1676 and Haley in 1718 saw nebula in the night sky – ‘an indistinct cloud-like, luminous object seen in the night sky, such as a cluster of distant stars, a galaxy’ (OED). Nebula now has broadened to refer to anything insubstantial. The cloudy mists of nebula are present in nebulizer “a device or machine for converting a liquid into a fine spray’ attested in 1865.

Old Norse nifl too is enveloped in cloudiness, specifically icy mist and darkness. Niflheim is the misty region north of the void Ginnungagap in the Norse creation myth. The first three Aesir thrust it deep underground where it wouldn’t freeze Midgard ( middle dwelling place, earth) and Niflheim became the chilly, mist-shrouded world of the dead ruled by the goddess Hel. It’s located beneath one of the roots of the tree Yggdraisill – the great tree of the universe.

And what of human thought? That too has been represented graphically in clouds wafting above the heads of drawn figures, capturing a character’s ephemeral thinking of a moment.

It’s ironic that ‘cloud’, this word of Old English origins, has become attached to present day technology as in cloud computing n. an open compound attested in 1996: ‘the use of networked facilities for the storage and processing of data rather than a user’s local computer, access to data or services typically being via the internet’ (OED).

I’ve  followed cloud trails through the dictionary and thesaurus accumulating words on the journey. I’ve taken too many photos in an attempt to capture the shifts, the nebulous forms, the light. I’ve consulted my old, trusty field guides:The Spur Book of Weather Lore, The Observer Book of Weather, and Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s:The Cloudspotter’s Guide. I’ve wandered through online galleries studying cloud painters of the past. I’ve fossicked through cloud atlases and the weather diaries of Gilbert White and Sir John Wittewronge. And no I haven’t, as did Wordsworth, ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’. I’ve been in the company of others who too have had their head in the clouds: Hooke, Howard, Turner, Constable, Wordsworth, Shelley. I’ve followed one word’s nebulous trails through the past, to other times, people and places.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s final verse of The Cloud, 1820, captures the transitory nature of clouds

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.

And I return to the watery clouds in the paintings hanging on my wall and think of my father who too had an eye to the sky and his head in the clouds.

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Boats on the Bay, John Madsen