Idiom of the week: ON CLOUD NINE
Definition: to be extremely happy and excited.
Example: She was on cloud nine for days after getting her degree.
Generally speaking, when a phrase contains a number, researchers focus on it to find its origin. ‘On cloud nine’ is no exception.
One commonly cited explanation is that the expression derives from the classifications of clouds defined by the US Weather Bureau in the 1950s, in which ‘Cloud Nine’ is listed as the fluffy cumulonimbus type considered to be the most attractive of all cloud formations.
Others claim that the phrase comes from Buddhism. In this explanation Cloud Nine is one of the stages of the progress to one who is destined to become a Buddha (enlightenment of a Bodhisattva).
However, it is argued that neither of these theories are very likely. First of all because both, the cloud classifications and the Buddhist stages to enlightenment, have ten levels rather than nine. Moreover, nine is not the only number which has been linked to clouds. It is likely that it is the clouds themselves, rather than the number of them, what inspired those who coined the phrase.
There are also early examples of ‘cloud’ expressions including clouds seven, eight, nine and even thirty-nine. For example, in Albin Pollock’s directory of slang, The Underworld Speaks, 1935, there is allusion to “cloud seven”. A little later, in 1946 “Cloud nine” evidence was found in The Oxnard Press-Courier. Around the same period “cloud seven” appeared in The San Mateo Times, April 1952 and “thirty-nine” in Ross’s Hustlers, 1956.
The first dictionary to cite this idiom favoured ‘cloud seven’ version. In 1960, the following definition was first printed in The Dictionary of American Slang:
“Cloud seven – completely happy, perfectly satisfied; in a euphoric state.”
This early preference for number seven may have been a result of the existing phrase ‘Seventh heaven’ which has a similar meaning, ‘a place or state of extreme bliss’ and has visible roots in Jewish and Islamic theology.
Despite this, since the 1980s, ‘cloud nine’ has been predominant. This might have been influenced by the use of ‘cloud nine’ in popular music such as in the albums of ‘George Harrison’ and ‘The Temptations’ in 1987 and 1969.
Idioms are constantly evolving; today, it is even possible to hear people expressing their happiness with the “cloud ten”. So, which cloud will we prefer in a hundred years time?