Just three Latin words unlock the meanings of most cloud names: Stratus meaning layer; cumulus, the word for lump or heap; and cirrus, which means wispy or curly. Add to this basic group the word nimbus, which means 'pouring down rain,' alto, the word meaning middle, and fracto for broken and you've got almost the entire sky covered.
Stratocumulus? That's easy - a layer of lumpy clouds. Cirrostratus - a wispy, curly layer of clouds. Cumulo-nimbus - big lumpy clouds that can pour down rain. How about fractostratus - a smooth layer of clouds that looks sort of torn apart.
Our system of cloud names was created by an English pharmacist named Luke Howard back in 1803. Though it has been refined and expanded over the years by various meteorologists, Howard's basic nomenclature remains in use today.
A modest man of science and a dedicated amateur weather observer, Howard was also evidently something of a poet, for the Latin names he proposed for the clouds have proven to be as memorable, as apt, and as seemingly inevitable as some of the great lines of Shakespeare. Luke Howard's latin cloud names. Nearly 200 years old, and unlike the latin names of plants and animals, have not been superceded by a non-latin moniker.
Thanks today to writer David Laskin. Our show is funded by Subaru and by the National Science Foundation.