origin of ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’

 

The Birds of Aristophanes - title sheet - 1883

The Birds of Aristophanes – title sheet – 1883
image: King’s College, Cambridge

King’s College, Cambridge, has a tradition, dating back to 1882, of performing Greek plays in their original language. The production of The Birds in 1883 was reportedly the first full performance of any comedy by Aristophanes since antiquity.

 

 

The word cloud-cuckoo-land denotes a realm of fantasy, dreams or impractical notions.

It is from Greek Νεϕελοκοκκυγία (= Nephelokokkugía), from νεϕέλη (= nephélē), cloud, and κόκκυξ (= kόkkux), cuckoo; this compound was coined by the Greek comic dramatist Aristophanes (circa 450-385 BC) in The Birds. The plot of this play is as follows in A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (translation by John Black – London, 1846), by August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767-1845), German essayist, critic, translator, philosopher and poet:

Two fugitives of the human race [Pisthetærus and Euelpides] fall into the domain of the birds, who resolve to revenge themselves on them for the numerous cruelties which they have suffered: the two men contrive to save themselves by proving the pre-eminency of the birds over all other creatures, and they advise them to collect all their scattered powers into one immense state; the wondrous city, Cloudcuckootown, is then built above the earth; all sorts of unbidden guests, priests, poets, soothsayers, geometers, lawyers, sycophants, wish to nestle in the new state, but are driven out; new gods are appointed, naturally enough, after the image of the birds, as those of men bore a resemblance to a man. Olympus is walled up against the old gods, so that no odour of sacrifices can reach them; in their emergency, they send an embassy, consisting of the voracious Hercules, Neptune, who swears according to the common formula, by Neptune, and a Thracian god, who is not very familiar with Greek, but speaks a sort of mixed jargon; they are, however, under the necessity of submitting to any conditions they can get, and the sovereignty of the world is left to the birds.

The passage in which a name is chosen for the city is as follows in the translation (London, 1824) of The Birds by Henry Francis Cary (1772-1844):

– Epops [a Bird]. Come, come; what’s to be done next?
– Pisthetærus. First we must put a name upon the city,
Some great and famous one […].
– Epops. We’ll take one hence [= from here]; even from the clouds and these
Meteorous regions.
– Pisthetærus. Something grand, I warrant,
And swelling. Cuckoocloudland. Will that do?
– Epops. O famous! famous! Thou’st found out a name
That’s passing fine, an excellent good name.

The name was Cloudcuckooborough in the translation (London, 1874) by Benjamin Hall Kennedy (1804-89).

The earliest figurative use of cloud-cuckoo-land that I have found is from an article published in The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art (London) of 12th January 1867; this is the beginning of the article in question:

IRELAND AND IRISH GRIEVANCES.

As the periodical coruscations of meteors are supposed to indicate disturbances in the air, so the periodical flashes of pamphleteers may be regarded as auguring a commotion in the political atmosphere. Judging by the number of tracts and letters which daily appear on every possible Irish subject, from adjustment of tenant-right to repeal of the Union, it seems easy to predict that politicians of every school will shortly find themselves hustling one another in a cloud-cuckoo-land of Irish theories and plausibilities.

The same magazine had used the variant cloud-cuckoo-town on 23rd January 1864; an article criticising the disorganisation of “the Shakspeare Memorial Committee” said that the proposed monument was

to be built nobody knows where by nobody knows whom, in Cloud-Cuckoo-Town or among the Spanish castles.

The earliest instance that I have found, however, is in the form cuckoo-cloud-land; it is from The Scotsman (Edinburgh) of 20th August 1856:

The Proposed Tramroads for London.—It is not without regret that we are compelled, on due consideration, to regard as chimerical the splendid vision of improved omnibus communication with which the Times furnished its readers on Thursday last. There is something, no doubt, extremely imposing, at first sight, in the notion of substituting for our existing Atlases, Waterloos, and Royal Blues—a double line of monster vehicles, each capable of accommodating its 80 or 100 passengers, passing in almost continuous transit along “tramroads running on each side of our principal streets.” There is a grandeur and simplicity about the suggestion eminently calculated to strike the academical imagination; and no doubt, if we were devising abstract improvements for some ideal City of Cuckoo-Cloud-Land, and not for this complex, concrete, matter-of-fact “Fog-Babylon,” the ingenuity of the scheme might lay a fair claim to admiration. But it is London, not Nephelococcygia*, that we want to mend.

(* Nephelococcygia: Latinised form of Greek Νεϕελοκοκκυγία)

In the French translations of The Birds, the city’s name is usually Coucouville-les-Nuées (the plural nuées is a literary term for nuages, clouds). But, unlike the English name, it has not acquired a figurative meaning.

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