Why Cloud Nine? And What’s Wrong With the First Eight Clouds?

Youve likely heard the term before, describing someone in pure bliss: Theyre “on cloud nine.” Maybe a little less often these days, since it feels like everyones on variable circles of hell depending on the day, but still. 

The specification of cloud number nine would suggest that theres a cloud-based happiness scale in common use. The kind of thing youd see on a therapy worksheet or a dry-erase board at a doctors office to describe the effectiveness of the opioid they just administered. 

But if there is such a thing, I’m unaware of it. 

Another educated guess of cloud nine’s origins is that since Dante famously popularized the idea of nine circles of hell in Inferno, a classic that Im comfortable enough in my intelligence not to pretend to have read, it would track that there were nine corresponding circles of heaven. In fact, he does describe nine heavens in Paradiso. The ninth being “Primum Mobile,” which is a little more of a mouthful but, honestly, still pretty cool.

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This is sort of how it feels when I hit a big sports bet, so.
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Some people have accepted this explanation wholesale, so far as to make it the title of a New Yorker piece on the Divine Comedy, a sentence that as I type it, makes me feel like Im rotating brandy around a snifter in a tenured professors study. 

Now, if youre more of an Eastern religions person, you have your own version of the afterlife to pull from, and interestingly, the stages of enlightenment in some forms of Buddhism also top out at nine. This is probably why a lot of peoples mental image of cloud nine is somebody sitting cross-legged on a cloud, glowing and making mysterious but meaningless hand gestures.

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But neither of these guesses really check out either. Thats because the earliest references to cloud something-or-other refer to cloud seven, which seems like a natural expansion of the term “seventh heaven.” The predominance of “cloud seven” is also backed up by its continued existence in German, a language that never felt the need to climb two further, in the phrase auf Wolke sieben schweben. And while many translation websites list “to be on cloud nine” as a direct translation, the German word for seven, sieben, is clearly smack-dab in the middle of it.

With those two bits of information together, I think the idea of seventh heaven morphing into cloud seven, and that seven simply inflating over time, is the most likely origin story of cloud nine. As far as rendering an official judgment, etymologists still havent agreed upon or isolated the genesis, which, come on guys, isnt this like your full-time job?

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To cover all bases, one last explanation offered for why cloud nine was chosen is the one that seems the least likely to me. Some suggest that the “cloud nine” in question was based on cloud classifications of the U.S. Weather Bureau, with cloud type nine, cumulonimbus, being the best of all. 

Now, this is patently absurd to me, given its reliance on the common, slang-using population giving even a microscopic rats ass about cloud classification tables.