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.

yourDictionary.com 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." You might want to check it out at:
http://dma.sjsu.edu/~dahlquis/public_space/clouds/flash.htm
It's an interesting project. Any website you care to give it is converted into a random looking "storm" of clouds on the screen. While it makes the page impossible to read, it's a nifty display of technology.

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.

Sources:

Looking for Shapes in the Clouds?
http://www.weatherworks.com/monthly/activities/nephelococcygia.html
Accessed Apr 02 2002.

Nephelococcygia:
http://dma.sjsu.edu/~dahlquis/public_space/statement.htm
Accessed Apr 02 2002.

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