In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle delves into the literary origins of a well-known phrase
The phrase ‘cloud cuckoo land’ is well known, but what are its origins? Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says, for the term’s etymology:
Greek Νεϕελοκοκκυγία ( < νεϕέλη cloud + κόκκυξ cuckoo), the name of the realm in Aristophanes’s Birds (l. 819) built by the birds to separate the gods from mankind.
The term made its debut in English (as Cloud Cuckoo Land, a literal translation of the original Greek) in an 1824 translation of Aristophanes’ play by Henry Francis Cary: ‘What shall our city’s name be? […] Cuckoocloudland. Will that do?’
Yes, that’s right. Cloud Cuckoo Land was originally Cuckoo Cloud Land. This was later altered to the phrase we know today, with the clouds and cuckoos being swapped round. It appears to have been an anonymous ‘graduate of the University of Oxford’, who published another translation of the works of Aristophanes in 1830, who first gave us ‘Cloud-cuckoo-land’.
Since the late nineteenth century, the phrase has been used more generally to refer to ‘a fanciful or ideal realm or domain’. Indeed, most of the time people use ‘cloud cuckoo land’ they do so without referencing the phrase back to Aristophanes; indeed, many people who use the phrase may well be unaware of the term’s origins in the work of ancient Greece’s greatest comic playwright.
Aristophanes is a fascinating figure in Greek literature, but whereas people tend to know more about Homer’s work (everyone has heard of the Iliad and Odyssey), or the idea of the Greek tragedy as established in the work of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, Aristophanes’ comedies remain perhaps slightly less firmly embedded within the popular psyche.
Aristophanes is the earliest comic playwright, or at least the earliest whose work has survived so that we can read it. We are lucky to have The Birds, The Knights, The Frogs, The Wasps, Lysistrata, Wealth, and the five other Aristophanes plays that have survived beyond antiquity, but in fact we have lost a host of others, including Seasons, Storks, Old Age, Centaur, and Merchant Ships, as well as the promisingly named pair of plays, Frying-Pan Men and Women in Tents.
We can only guess at their contents (and how funny they were). In another of his plays (one which has survived), The Clouds, Aristophanes even poked fun at Socrates – with lines from Aristophanes’ satire on the philosopher being used at Socrates’ trial as evidence that he was corrupting the young.
But it’s The Birds which interests us here, because that’s the one that gave us ‘cloud cuckoo land’ (or rather, Cloud Cuckoo Land). In the play, this is the name given to the city in the sky constructed by the world’s birds, at the request of an Athenian man named Pisthetaerus. The idea is that the birds will thus gain control over all messages sent by both men and gods, but the idea is – to borrow another metaphor – a castle in the air. Thus the term came to apply to a fanciful state of unrealistic and over-optimistic thinking.
So, Cloud Cuckoo Land was a utopia – it has been compared to the medieval European land of Cockayne, a mythical land of plenty that featured in a poem – and like all utopias, it is a ‘no-place’, because it couldn’t possibly exist (or at least, couldn’t function efficiently as intended). ‘Living in Cloud Cuckoo Land’ means to live with a deluded idea of the world and how things work.
The phrase has, perhaps unsurprisingly, appealed to poets, novelists, and musicians over the years, because many artists quite like to inhabit utopias and explore their possibilities and their limitations. Cloudcuckooland is both the title of a 1990 album by the Lightning Seeds and a 1997 poetry collection by Simon Armitage.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.