Idioms from the sky

The sky has influenced the development of our languages, and we can see this in the metaphor and idiom derived from the sky
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First Published: Mon, Feb 25 2013. 07 34 PM IST
A file photo of UK Prime Minister David Cameron (left) and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The sky is the limit,” Cameron said in his first public engagement during his recent visit to India. The phrase he used was a nearly worn-out metaphor, but we do hear it often in daily, informal conversation.  Photo: PIB
A file photo of UK Prime Minister David Cameron (left) and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The sky is the limit,” Cameron said in his first public engagement during his recent visit to India. The phrase he used was a nearly worn-out metaphor, but we do hear it often in daily, informal conversation. Photo: PIB
The sky is the limit,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said in his first public engagement during his recent visit to India. He was referring to the prospects of strengthening a “special relationship” between the two countries. The phrase he used was a nearly worn-out metaphor, but we do hear it often in daily, informal conversation.
The sky is defined as the space that we see when we stand outside and look upwards. More pompous synonyms have been used, such as empyrean, firmament, heavens, and welkin. The skies are ever changing and ever the same, and Wordsworth wrote: “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky.”
The sky has influenced the development of our languages, and we can see this in the metaphor and idiom derived from the sky.
Some of these idioms refer to the enormous distances in the space that makes up the sky. Prices have sky-rocketed, we say, knowing well that we are using a cliché.
If someone’s head is in the clouds, he is leading an artificial life, cut off from reality. If some unexpected event happens, we say it came “out of the blue”; this is sometimes expanded to “out of the clear blue sky.” Earlier it was a “bolt from the blue”, meaning thunder striking when the weather is clear and the sky is blue.
An idiom that has me baffled is “once in a blue moon”, which means rarely. The reference in the idiom is to the second of two full moons that may occur in one calendar month. This is a rare occurrence and so the idiom means rarely. For example: “Once in a blue moon he travels to his native town to be with his family.” The idea that a single calendar month can have two full moons or two new moons is known to Indian astrologers. They say that a month that has two new moons is not to be chosen for any auspicious event.
Contrasting with these negative suggestions, there are idioms that sound positive. An idiom that has proved useful is “every cloud has a silver lining”. In adverse situations it helps to boost our confidence in better days to come.
When we are in a state of elation or bliss, we are on “cloud nine”. The reference here is to the ninth of 10 types of clouds listed in the cloud atlas. Its name is cumulonimbus and it rises to a height of 10km. Another explanation links it to Buddhism, with cloud nine representing a stage in the path towards enlightenment. But there was already a cloud seven in American slang. Some scholars say that cloud nine is a natural sequel to “seventh heaven”, a phrase that indicates perfect happiness. The latter term is used in certain non-Christian systems to refer to the seventh and most exalted of the levels of heaven, where God and the highest class of angels dwell. Still, we should remember that the origin of these words remains speculative.
Today, the word “cloud” has been taken over by high tech. The semantic space around the word has changed. Cloud computing involves the running of software and storing of data in central systems which users can access through the Internet. The name “cloud” was chosen for such a system from the use of drawings of clouds in system diagrams to indicate the Internet. The subject has grown in importance and has produced its own jargon and spawned its own crop of acronyms.
“Big data” and “cloud” are, according to Global Language Monitor, the most confusing tech buzzwords of the emergent decade. As with other sky idioms, the cloud idioms will remain in use, continuing to enrich the language.
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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First Published: Mon, Feb 25 2013. 07 34 PM IST
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