Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

To be on cloud nine is to be in a state of intense well-being

The most common explanation for the origin of the term tells us that the United States Weather Bureau classifies nine levels of clouds. The clouds on Level Nine are the ones we know as the fluffy white clouds that are so pretty against the blue sky. These cumulonimbus clouds not only extend to great heights, but are powerful, too. Because they produce thunderstorms, lightning, heavy rain and hail, to be on the top of cloud nine was to be above all the bad weather. The problem with this explanation is that when the phrase came into use there were 10 types of clouds, so cloud nine would not be the highest. Today there are even more.

Got your head in the clouds?

Someone who has their head in the clouds is out of touch with the everyday world and unaware of what is going on around them. They are either daydreaming or living in a fantasy world. Contrast this with someone who is said to be down-to-earth, meaning they are practical, sensible, and level-headed.

Another way of saying someone is ecstatic, rapturous and euphoric is to say they are in seventh heaven

The difference between cloud nine and seventh heaven is this: seventh heaven is a place where believers go to receive their just rewards after they die while cloud nine is a state of mind we experience while we are alive.

Seventh Heaven is the most exalted of the stages of afterlife

The religious explanations for seven heavens involve how each represents a different level of paradise that can be achieved by living increasingly devout lives. The seventh and highest level is the place of ultimate joy, where God resides. Since the early 1800’s, the idiom has been used to refer to a state of bliss by religious and non-religious people alike. 

In more modern times, where awesome no longer means astonishing and epic no longer means heroic, the state of being in seventh heaven has also likely been watered down from its exalted beginnings. Today you stand a good chance of hearing someone say they were “literally in seventh heaven,” when of course they were not.

Seven heavens are associated with many different religions, some of which still exist today

In Hinduism, for example, there are seven lower worlds and seven higher worlds. The earth is the lowest of the higher seven. Gotquestions.org says “the six worlds above us are places of increasing wonder and delight.” People are sent to one of the seven worlds after they die, according to how much good karma they accumulated. Later they are believed to return to the earth where they are born into new bodies.

To the ancient Babylonians, the seven heavens were associated with the physical bodies they could see in the nighttime sky with the naked eye: our sun and moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the planets all named after the gods who ruled them.

Jews first thought the earth was a flat disk with the heavens above and the underworld below. Along the way they took up the idea of the earth as a sphere at the center of seven concentric heavens. This is one of the earliest notions we have of planets in orbit, with the earth quite naturally at the center, of course. The experts knew that the sun, moon, planets and stars were the ones that moved – not the earth.

In modern times, Jews see the seven heavens as metaphorical, not literal as was once believed. Islam’s seven levels of heaven correspond with the righteousness of the believers’ deeds on earth and are where one will reside after death. Islamic prophet Muhammad is said to have journeyed to all seven heavens. Hundreds of years before that, a Zoroastrian priest took the same trip with different guides and met different people, likely in a dream.

The Divine Comedy is a traditional heroic poem that mixed myth and metaphor

Written in 1308, the story is similar to the Zoroastrian journey through the stages of the afterlife. La Comedia Divina is a long narrative poem that tells of an imaginary journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. In hell, there were levels for each of the Seven Deadly Sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride) and two later additions, fraud and treachery. 

The seven visible bodies in the heavens each represented greater virtues (the moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn)

Dante added two more levels of his own. The eighth he called Fixed Stars and the ninth he called the Primum Mobile, the place where the angels live and where life and time began. A few think that the expression being on cloud nine took over from being in seventh heaven for good when the Temptations released their album Psychedelic Soul in 1987. Click here to watch the Temps perform Cloud Nine.

When it comes to expressions and idioms, nine is a very popular number 

Nines are made of threes, long considered to be powerful numbers. Nines also have certain characteristics of their very own. My favorite is that when you multiply any number by nine, the individual digits of the answers always add up to nine. For example, 9 times 2 equals 18, 1+8=9, and Bob’s your uncle.

The Nine Muses

Long ago, the Muses were a part of Greek mythology. They were daughters of Zeus, the king of all the gods. Each Muse was lovely, graceful, and gifted with a specific talent she used to provide artists and scientists with inspiration.

The word muse is from the Greek for desire and also gives us the word museum, meaning the seat of the Muses. Their names and specialties are Calliope (poetry), Clio (history), Erato (hymns), Euterpe (flutes), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (mime), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy), and Urania (astronomy).

The Nine Worthies

About the time the Middle Ages rolled around, the Nine Worthies were legendary characters from history and religion who were said to be the ideals of chivalry and all-around goodness. These nine men were well-known to medieval scholars as the personification of all that was noble and heroic. You will likely know some of them: Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, David, Godfrey of Bouillon, Hector, Joshua, Julius Caesar, Judas Maccabaeus and King Arthur.

Dressed to the nines

When someone is very stylishly dressed, typically for a formal event, we say they are dressed to the nines. Some say the term is related the glorious uniforms of the Duke of Edinburgh’s 99th Foot Infantry Regiment, wearers of very fancy uniforms, indeed. Another theory says that term “nines” refers to fine full-dress dress uniforms with regalia worn by officers of high rank who had the money to spend on custom tailored uniforms. 

The whole nine yards

This term means the whole thing – all of it. Check your thesaurus and you will find these synonyms: the whole ball of wax, the whole shooting match, the whole shebang, and many more.

Many people think they know the source of this commonly used term – and most of them are wrong. The origins all involve some sort of measurement and all sound plausible. There is more argument than reasoned debate about the source because everyone’s favorite makes sense to them.

Here are some of the popularly-held explanations, none of which are likely:

Nine yards of fabric used in a kilt, nine innings of baseball, nine cubic yards of material in a cement mixer or a dump truck, the length of a machine gun ammo belt, the amount of dirt dug for a rich man’s grave, and a full set of sails.

So where does the phrase ‘the whole nine yards’ come from?

Noted linguist William Safire says the whole nine yards is “one of the great etymological mysteries of our time.”

Want to read more articles like this?

Click here for no-ad, no-tracking access to the hundreds of articles David has written every week since 2016. He covers lots of topics, always showing there is more to things than meet the eye.

Bonus

Most people accept made-up explanations for word origins without even thinking where they came from. Not you, thank goodness.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.
Loading