The phrase on cloud nine describes a state of euphoria or elation and the reference is of unknown significance. It is an Americanism and is first recorded in 1957 in George P. Elliot’s Among the Dangs:
I waited awhile, but he was off on cloud nine.
Although the phrase with the number nine dates to 1957, there are variants using other numbers dating back to the 1930s. Albin Jay Pollock’s 1935 The Underworld Speaks: An Insight to Vice—Crime—Corruption has:
Cloud eight, befuddled on account of drinking too much liquor.
Cloud seven makes its appearance in an article in Time magazine from 8 November 1954:
He’s way out on Cloud 7.
The year 1956 sees cloud thirty-nine in Sam Ross’s The Hustlers:
That stuff is way up on Cloud Thirty-nine.1
Various tales have been attached to the phrase trying to explain the significance of the number nine. Perhaps the most common is one that tries to explain it by asserting, incorrectly, that there are nine meteorological classifications of clouds. All of these explanations of nine are certainly false because of the other numbers commonly used in the phrase’s early days. The choice of number probably has no semantic significance and usage probably settled around nine because of that number’s numerological significance and usage in other phrases like the whole nine yards and dressed to the nines.
1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 438-39.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton