Monday, 24 August 2009

I’ve looked at clouds that way

Joni Mitchell looked at clouds and saw ‘rows and flows of angel hair and ice-cream castles in the air’. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince looks at a cloud and compares it to a camel, then a weasel, then a whale. Somehow it wouldn’t be quite as poetic if these characters had scanned the sky and reported seeing a bank of altocumulus or cirrostratus.

The technical names for cloud formations are conventionally Latin words chosen to match characteristic shapes, and so when weather-watchers recently identified a new type of cloud that has hitherto escaped classification, the name proposed for it was the Latin word asperatus. Meaning ‘roughened’, this name looks set to join the likes of cirrus (meaning ‘a curl’), cumulus (‘a heap’) and stratus (‘a layer’) and the various combinations and subdivisions of these in the weather forecaster’s lexicon.

It is understandable that scientists should need precise terminology in talking about their subject, but The Chambers Dictionary knows that there are other ways of talking about clouds. A scan of the dictionary reveals that cirrus clouds can also be called goat’s hair or (when then they occur in long strands) mare’s-tails, while a cirro-cumulus cloud has the alternative name of a woolpack. A messenger is a light scudding cloud preceding a storm, and a water dog is a small irregular floating cloud supposed to indicate rain. A sky that is streaked with long, parallel white masses of cloud is called a mackerel sky due to a perceived similarity with the fish’s scales.

The farmers, shepherds and sailors who scanned the skies in the old days may not have known Latin, but they certainly came up with some memorable words for the things they saw. Perhaps the Royal Meteorological Society should give a thought to this descriptive tradition as it considers the name for the new formation.

Ian Brookes

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