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Cloud nine

Q From Ernie Epp: What is the origin of the expression cloud nine for a very happy person?

A The phrase to be on cloud nine, meaning that one is blissfully happy, started life in the United States and has been widely known there since the 1950s.

Dusty Rhodes of the Giants admitted today he will have to come down off cloud nine pretty soon and go to work again.

Holland Evening Sentinel, 20 April 1955. Rhodes was an outfielder for the New York Giants, a baseball player about whom it was said that on the surface he seemed to be unable to run, hit, throw, or field, but who beat you anyway; he’s still remembered by aficionados of the game as helping to ensure his team’s 4 – 0 victory in the 1954 World Series.

The expression is often said to have been popularised by the Johnny Dollar radio show of the early 1950s, in which every time the hero was knocked unconscious he was transported to cloud nine. I can’t find a contemporary reference to this. But there was another show, often listed alongside it in the schedules:

Cloud Nine. Friday. 8:00 p.m. This excitingly new show presented by the Wm. Wrigley Jr., Co. blends fantasy, music, drama and comedy into 30 minutes of imaginative entertainment.

Portland Sunday Telegram, 2 July 1950. Originally produced in Chicago by the CBS affiliate WBBM, this was the show’s network premiere, one of several that summer sponsored by the chewing-gum manufacturer.

This is the first use of the phrase we have. But there is indirect evidence that it was by then already known. As one instance, the Los Angeles Times reported that a yacht taking part in a race around Catalina Island in June 1947 was called Cloud Nine.

Variant forms of the expression are recorded even earlier.

Cloud eight is known from Albin Pollock’s glossary The Underground Speaks of 1935, in which it’s defined as “befuddled on account of drinking too much liquor” and which might owe part of its genesis to the 1930 car, the Reo Flying Cloud Eight. Later, it seems to have referred to a dreamy state:

Any worth-while career takes years of patience and hard work, but why not stop day-dreaming, come in off cloud eight, and get started this year instead of next?

Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 May 1945.

and was used later the same year in a radio show with a distinctively oddball sense of humour, Rogue’s Gallery, in which the private eye Richard Rogue, played by Dick Powell, was knocked senseless each episode and transported to cloud eight, where his alter ego, Eugor, gave him clues that helped him solve the mystery.

There’s also cloud seven:

We latched onto an ultimate meetin’ where a local crew was makin’ with the music that liked to rock the roof and everyone was havin’ a ball. Lots of noises, lots of sounds that put us up on cloud seven though we weren’t in the States. The drummer was beatin’ the skins, The pianist was really ticklin’ the eighty-eight. The sax man was frantic and the horn was the most.

Pacific Stars And Stripes, 20 January 1954. The writer, private Joe Nevens of the US Army, is taking R&R with friends in Tokyo. “Crush me, Dad, I’m stoned.” There’s also the 1952 song Cloud Lucky Seven by Charles Tobias and Peter DeRose that Guy Mitchell got into the British hit parade in 1953 (“You’re walkin’ on cloud lucky seven / Hah, seven is the cloud nearest heaven”) .

Seven and heaven, a pair of words that help lyricists by rhyming, remind us of the Jewish and Islamic seventh heaven, the most exalted level, the place where God dwells over the angels, the souls of the righteous, and the souls of those yet to be born, hence the phrase seventh heaven as a place or state of supreme bliss, which dates from the later eighteenth century.

Cloud nine and its variations have always had close associations with the euphoria that is induced by certain chemicals, as you can tell from the quotations — alcohol in its earlier days but more recently cannabis and crack cocaine. The cloud here is an obvious reference to some drug-induced dreamy floating sensation.

This link, and the numerical variations, makes deeply suspect a common story about its origin — that it is from the US Weather Bureau. This organisation is said to describe (or once did describe) clouds by an arithmetic sequence. Level nine was the highest cumulonimbus, which can reach 30,000 or 40,000 feet and appear as glorious white mountains in the sky. So if you were on cloud nine you were at the very peak of existence. I can find no evidence at all to support this classification’s existence.

I suspect that seven was chosen in part because of the religious associations and because it’s a traditional lucky number and that cloud was substituted for heaven because of the links with the drug-induced sensation. Today’s more usual nine may have come to be preferred because it reminds people of other idioms, such as dressed to the nines and the whole nine yards.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 21 Aug. 1999
Last updated 5 Sep. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 5 September 2009.