As with all language and proverbs, the saying ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ has evolved over time. Its most likely origin was from the pen (or equivalent writing instrument for the time) of John Milton, the celebrated poet, most famous for writing Paradise Lost. In his masque Comus, he wrote:

‘Was I deceiv’d, or did a sable cloud turn forth her silver lining on the night?’
It should be understood that the ‘silver lining’ referred to is the edge of a cloud that seems to glow when rays of sunlight shine brightly from behind the cloud. Thus, this creates a lining to the cloud. If we want to go down the semantic or structuralist route, the cloud is used, especially in poetry, as a signifier of negative feelings or emotions and often imbues a feeling of foreboding. Hence, in the case of Milton and subsequent literary uses of this saying, the silver lining is used as a signifier of good and to suggest that inherent in all perceived darkness and negativity, there is something useful and positive.

In 1852, Charles Dickens wrote ‘Bleak House’ and he made direct reference to Milton’s line: ‘I turn my silver lining outward like Milton’s cloud’. The fact Dickens had a huge readership, both during his lifetime and afterwards helped contribute to the survival and further development of the saying. The first wording of it in its present and most recognisable form can be traced back to 1869. Phineas T. Barnum wrote in his book ‘Struggles and Triumphs’, ‘’Every cloud,’ says the proverb, ‘has a silver lining’’.

If one were to be a pessimist, one can always point out to anyone expounding this idiom that although the saying may be true, in a sense, it must be equally true that every silver lining will be accompanied by a cloud. For the pedantic, one could also argue that a mushroom cloud is an exception to the rule, given that such a cloud can obliterate even the strongest sunlight from penetrating the cloud.

The saying is most often used in conversations where one party is bemoaning some unfortunate incident they have had to, or still are, enduring. The listener, bereft of anything useful to say, having exhausted all possible comments and perhaps seeking to end the conversation in a positive way or change the topic to something they’re more interested in, will say something like, ‘oh well, every cloud has a silver lining though’. It does also have an ironic or mischievous usage due to the contradiction at its heart.