Friday, September 01, 2006


I WANDERED lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
William Wordsworth

Nephelococcygia pronounced ne-fê-lê-kak-'si-jee-yê is a term used when people find familiar objects within the shape of a cloud. At one time or another, humans have looked up to the clouds and imagined shapes resembling familiar objects. The earth's atmosphere and the system of the weather are complex and self-organizing, the system itself is transient, permanent and fleeting, and transfixed all at the same time. Maybe an imagined letter of the alphabet. Or, it might be an animal or a person's face. This is called nephelococcygia and the word was first coined in the play The Birds written in 414 B.C. by the Greek comic poet Aristophanes. He wrote in the style known as Old Comedy, a farcical and free style form that permitted him to ridicule the public figures and institutions of his time. In spite of difficulties with translations, his sharp wit still comes through today and The Birds is widely considered Aristophanes' best work.

The comedy takes place around two Athenians, Pisthetaerus and Eulpides. Fed up with the corruption that seems to govern their city, they find a solution in leaving for a better future in a better place by turning into birds and immediately begin planning a city they decide to call "Nephelococcygia." In their quest for a perfect city they join forces with their once human friend Tereus, the Epops, `who is a bird, without being born of one'. Terus is convinced by Pisthetaerus and Eulpides and other birds of their right to reign the skies, and together they create an ideal, flawless city nestled in the clouds: Nephelococcygia. Rebelling against humankind and the gods alike: they fight and are the victors. Eventually Pisthetaerus marries Zeus' lover. The menu of their wedding banquet includes roasted birds, to wit, those who opposed the new rulers.

While their city never really comes into being, by capitalizing the word it refers to their imaginary city. One of the characters tells them they are crazy for seeing shapes in the clouds. So literally speaking the term nephelococcygia means cloud cuckooland or "Cloudcuckoosville." By today's usage the essence of the word has come to mean nonsensical cloud watching; to look for changing shapes and transformation in the cloud forms. observes that the etymology stems from:

    Greek nephelekokkygia from nephele "cloud" + kokkyx "cuckoo." "Nephele" derives from *nebh- found with the same suffix, -l, in Latin nebula "cloud" and German Nebel "mist, fog." Russian nebo "sky" derives from the same source. Nasalized, this root emerges in Latin nimbus "rain, cloud." "Cuckoo" and Greek "kokkyx" are onomatopoetic (imitative) creations unrelated except through the fact that all cuckoos sing the same song.
While some speculate that the Cydonia Mensae Face on Mars may be an artificial sculpture suffering from nephelococcygia, T. H. Huxley, friend and colleague of Charles Darwin wrote in a letter to William Bateson in 1894 after Bateson sent a copy of his data-laden book, Materials for the Study of Variation, to Huxley. They were caught up in trying to understand Darwin's Origin of Species; Huxley replied:
    My dear Mr. Bateson.

    I have put off thanking you for the volume On Variation which you have been so good as to send me in the hope that I should be able to look into it before doing so.

    But I find that impossible, beyond a hasty glance, at present. I must content myself with saying how glad I am to see from that glance that we are getting back from the region of speculation into that of fact again.

    There have been threatenings of late that the field of battle of Evolution was being transferred to Nephelococcygia.

    I see you are inclined to advocate the possibility of considerable "saltus" on the part of Dame Nature in her variations. I always took the same view, much to Mr. Darwin's disgust, and we used often to debate it.

James Clerk Maxwell's crowning achievement was the summation of all electromagnetic phenomena in four differential equations, aptly named Maxwell's Equations in his honor. It's fairly common knowledge that Maxwell never tired of a good joke, and his humor was most sophisticated at Cambridge. To his colleagues at the university he would sign his postcards dp/dt, which translates in the language of mathematical physics, to his initials, "JCM." Sometimes he would write backwards, or pose puzzles or riddles for his friends. His writing is sprinkled with Latin, Greek, French, and German quotes. It would take a scholar in Greek mythology and Sophocles' plays to understand this whimsical line from a postcard to his friend Peter G.Tait: It is rare sport to see those learned Germans contending for the priority in the discovery that the Second law is deduced from Hamilton's principle ... Hamilton's principle soars along in a region unvexed by statistical considerations, while the German Icari flap their waxen wings in nephelococcygia'

The word continues to evolve. On the Internet, says one web site, nephelococcygia has become representative as a symbolic use of the cloud. "As such, we use the term `nephelococcygia' when diagramming models that visually depict data flow from system to system."

It doesn't cost anything to visit the dreamy world of Nephelococcygia. Maybe you would like to go there on a warm summer's day.

How To Look For Shapes In The Clouds

  1. Find a safe spot to lay on the grass. Freshly mown is recommended.
  2. Lay on your back on the grass.
  3. Please don't ever look at the sun or towards the sun.
  4. Relax.
  5. Look at the clouds that are away from the sun.
  6. Watch the moving clouds and see if you can figure out any of the shapes. Can you see animals? people? objects?
  7. If you have a camera, you might want to take some pictures.
  8. If you do not have a camera, you might want to keep a cloud journal and draw the clouds that you see.


Looking for Shapes in the Clouds?
Apr 02 2002.

Accessed Apr 02 2002.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The coast is clear

    In the "good old times" they were noted smugglers, and one day, seeing the coastguard on the watch, they sunk in the sea some smuggled whisky. When they supposed the coast was clear they employed rakes to get their goods in hand again, when lo! the coastguard reappeared and demanded of them what they were doing. Pointing to the reflection of the moon in the water, they replied,"We are trying to rake out that cream-cheese yonder."

The gentle folk of Wiltshire England are called moonrakers today probably based on the tale in E. Cobham Brewer's 1898 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. In spite of the humorous dodge of the nocturnal buccaneers who did not do all that of a good job of assuring that the coast was clear, the phrase still means pretty much the same thing today as it did at the turn of the 19th century. At its very heart it means that there is no danger of being spotted or that there is no one about or that there are no obstacles or dangers in the way. Formerly it was a military expression dating back to the 1500's having to do with literally clearing away an adversary from a coastline one example would be to use it as a tactic for laying groundwork for a safe invasion.

Before that the idiom enjoyed a completely different meaning. In 1485 Le Morte d'Arthur Malory wrote that, "Syr Beaumayns smote hym thorou the cost of the body." In this case cost means the side of the body because as Georgia from the Maven's Word of the Day writes, "Coast comes from the Latin word costa, which means 'rib, flank, or side' and also gives us such words as intercostal and cutlet (through French cotelette 'little rib')." She also adds that," The Indo-European root is kost which means 'bone'. Until about 1800, coast could be used for the side of the body of a person or of an animal ("a coast of mutton") or of anything at all," like perhaps a shoreline or the water's edge.

So maybe this is how the word coast in Middle English made its way into modern speech. It means, 'the side of the land' or 'the seashore.' Thomas Harman wrote in Caveat 30 (1567coaste about them cleare." By 1531 the phrase appears in print in recounting a vessel that had safely cleared the coast, then later Shakespeare used it in Henry VI as an allusion to visibility. The play was probably written in 1592 and concerns the events subsequent to the death of Henry V. The play includes the beginnings of the War of the Roses, the loss of Britain's territories in France and drew upon popular sentiments of the time. The portrayal of 15th-century noblemen attacking the city of Rouen would definitely have called to mind Essex's 1592 attempts at Rouen to aid the French in overturning a Protestant uprising.

In the play Winchester the Head of the church accuses Gloucester, Named Protector of the English Realm of wanting to control Henry. There is a betrayal for power and fighting between their serving men erupts into a street brawl leaving the Mayor with his hands full. King Henry VI's biggest threats are his advisors and nobles, many of whom are involved in arguments with each other. Although young and inexperienced, he realizes what damage may be reaped by such dissention among the lords. In an attempt to quell the brawling in the streets the Mayor meets with Winchester and Gloucester in this scene from Act I, Scene iv:


    Nought rests for me in this tumultuous strife

    But to make open proclamation:

    Come, officer; as loud as e'er thou canst:



    All manner of men assembled here in arms

    this day against God's peace and the king's, we charge

    and command you, in his highness' name, to repair to

    your several dwelling-places; and not to wear, handle, or

    use any sword, weapon, or dagger, henceforward, upon

    pain of death.


    Cardinal, I'll be no breaker of the law;

    But we shall meet, and break our minds at large.


    Gloucester, we will meet; to thy cost, be sure;

    Thy heart-blood I will have for this day's work.


    I 'll call for clubs, if you will not away.

    This Cardinal's more haughty than the devil.


    Mayor, farewell: thou dost but what thou mayst.


    Abominable Gloucester, guard thy head;

    For I intend to have it ere long.

    [Exeunt, severally, Gloucester and Winchester with their Serving-men.]


    See the coast clear'd, and then we will depart.

    Good God, these nobles should such stomachs bear!

    I myself fight not once in forty year.
    Henry VI Part I
    Act I, Scene iv

Strangely though neither Harmon nor Shakespeare connect the term with the idea of the coast is clear with smuggling. It wouldn't be until 1868 when Edward A. Freeman penned The history of the Norman Conquest wrote that," The coast was now clear for Godwine's return," which is remarkable because Godwine spent the early part of his youth running ill gotten goods as a pirate along the southern coast of England. And Swap adds that, "The Spanish version of this saying is "no hay moros en la costa," there are no Moors on the coast, presumably something that would have been important to know at the Strait of Gibraltar."


coast, The Maven's Word of the Day
Accessed August 29, 2005

coast, Oxford English Dictionary
Accessed August 29, 2005.

Accessed August 29, 2005.

Re: The coast is clear
Accessed August 29, 2005.

Henry VI, Part I , Sparknotes
Accessed August 29, 2005.

Public domain text from Henry VI by William Shakespeare
Accessed October 23, 2005.