[Ed. – Originally posted here, this story is now one of 100 peculiar etymologies featured in “The Accidental Dictionary”, available from all good bookstores.]
So, this peculiar little fact cropped up over on HH the other day:
We’ve tweeted about clouds before:
…which sparked quite a debate over on Twitter back in December. And likewise, this time around, a few cloud-related comments were soon obumbilating our Twitter feed:
Granted, there aren’t all that many overlaps between etymology and meteorology, but the fact remains that cloud derives, oddly enough, from an Old English word, clúd, that once meant “rock”, “hill”, or “mass of stone”.
Because of that—as those astute followers worked out—cloud has some fairly unexpected etymological cousins in modern English, including clod (a lump of mud or earth) and clot (a congealed mass), as well as a handful of more obscure words like clout (an old word for a small piece of leather or iron, sheared from something larger), cleat (a wedge or bolt), and clew (a 1,000-year-old word for a spherical globule or conglomeration of something smaller, like a snowball or a ball of string). Shameless Plug #3,514: there’s more on that in the HH fact book, Word Drops.
But how does a word for a mass of rock come to be used as a word for a mass of water vapour? Well, it’s presumed that Old English speakers were quick to notice that thick, heavy, dark-grey rainclouds (the type anyone living in England knows an awful lot about) looked, well, a lot like thick, heavy, dark-grey masses of stone. Consequently the Old English word clúd gained a second meteorological meaning, and by the early fourteenth century this meaning had all but replaced the older one entirely; from the Middle English period onwards, clúd (or clod as it was spelled by then) was being used almost exclusively used to refer to clouds. And it’s this meaning that has remained in use ever since.
It might seem like a odd connection, but it’s by no means alone. When the word cumulus first appeared in English in the mid-1600s, for instance, it originally referred to a mound or pile of something, or, according to the OED, to “the conical top of a heaped measure”, like a piled spoonful of flour. Etymologically, cumulus is derived from a Latin word for “heap”, and it’s a relative of words like accumulation and cumulate.
Only one question remains, then: if clúd meant “rock”, what on earth was the Old English word for cloud?
The answer to that is weolcen, which is the origin of the somewhat old-fashioned English word welkin. Sadly, welkin has all but disappeared from the language today outside of literary circles and a handful of local English dialects, but it remained in use right up to the nineteenth century. You’ll find it in the works of William Wordsworth, Charles Kingsley, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, and Charlotte Brontë, among others, as well as in the original opening line of the Christmas favourite Hark! The Herald Angels Sing—which was originally a solemn and considerably un-Christmassy hymn beginning, “Hark! how all the welkin rings”.
Like clúd, however, welkin also steadily changed its meaning over time. Although it originally meant “cloud”, its use broadened and grew ever more figurative, so that by the time Wordsworth and Brontë and everyone else were using it in the nineteenth century, it was taken to mean “the heavens”, “the firmament”, “the upper atmosphere”, or “the entirety of the sky”. Likewise, to make the welkin ring, or to rend the welkin, is an old English expression describing an impossibly loud noise or cheer. Like a rock concert. Or should that be a cloud concert? (No. It shouldn’t.)
A very gracious hat tip to Dave Galvin III (@dwgalviniii) for the bonus knowledge about Charles Wesley’s original lyrics for Hark! The Herald Angels Sing here, which was not in our original post of this blog. Much appreciated!