The practice of 'whaling' existed long before the first recorded use of the phrase 'whale of a time'. (The whale and the three-masted ship, Wenceslas Hollar, 1607-1677)Wikicommons: Wenceslas Hollar Digital Collection

Varsity is turning 70, and the time to celebrate is here. Crack out the balloons, cut yourself a slice of cake, and settle down for a look at some of our celebration idioms.

At 70, Varsity might be getting on a little bit, but that doesn’t mean we’re incapable of having a good time. How we express having fun can be slightly odd, though – why, for example, are we having a whale of a time? After all, whales aren’t exactly known for being shining examples of excitement and joy. They are, however, very large, and so ‘a whale of’ something is simply an intensifier. ‘A whale of a time’ might be the most common use of this structure, but it’s possible to encounter this phrase in other contexts, too, and it can be used positively or negatively. Around the time of its origin in the early nineteenth century, it was more usual to meet a ‘whaler’ of something; one Glasgow newspaper uses the phrase ‘whaler of a fib’ in 1832. By the late nineteenth century, this had started to move towards what we know today, becoming ‘a whale on’ something. In novels, examples can be found of characters describing themselves as being ‘a whale on’ something, much in the same way that we might describe ourselves as being ‘big on’ something to express enthusiasm. It wasn’t long until this then shifted into ‘a whale of’. A dictionary of American student slang by Willard C. Gore records ‘whale’ in 1895 as “a person who is a prodigy either physically or intellectually”, or “something exceptionally large”, giving the example “a whale of a time” to demonstrate the phrase’s “jolly” connotations. By the beginning of the twentieth century, it had started to enter common parlance beyond student slang, and since then has stuck around as a way to express enjoying oneself.

Still, even if we are having a whale of a time, it would be fair to say that by usual standards Varsity is somewhat over the hill these days. Which hill, though? Well, there’s no specific hill in question – it’s simply a slightly gentler way of saying that someone is going a bit downhill in their old age. The phrase originated in the early 1900s in England and works around the idea of an 80-year life span. The first 40 years are spent going up the hill, developing and growing and generally being young and sprightly. It’s only after 40 that everything takes a turn for the worse, and the journey downhill – and towards the grave – begins, to last another 40 years.

“There are also recorded cases of cloud eight and even cloud thirty-nine”

Varsity is still going strong, though, and that’s certainly something to be happy about. Some of you might even be on cloud nine about it, but it turns out there are actually a lot more clouds you could visit if you’re feeling happy. There are a lot of claims about why we say we’re on cloud nine when we’re feeling ecstatic – that cloud nine in a 1950s cloud classification referred to cumulonimbus clouds, which are generally considered fluffy and pretty, or that it’s one of the stages of enlightenment for a bodhisattva in Buddhism – but neither of these really work. There are 10 types of cloud in that cloud classification, and 10 stages in the Buddhist enlightenment, so why would the penultimate stage be chosen to express the pinnacle of something? More importantly, the phrase was originally cloud seven, which debunks any links to things which are ninth in a sequence. In 1960, The Dictionary of American Slang provided the first printed definition of the term as “Cloud seven – completely happy, perfectly satisfied; in a euphoric state”. It’s thought that ‘cloud seven’ can be linked to ‘seventh heaven’, explaining the number seven, but there are also recorded cases of cloud eight and even cloud thirty-nine. It seems that the number is actually rather arbitrary. We probably ended up at nine just from people trying to intensify seven, similarly to how it’s now common to say you’re giving 110 per cent to something. The important part is the clouds themselves, which have long been associated with dreaminess and ambition (and drunkenness, actually) – think of phrases like ‘head in the clouds’ and ‘building castles in the air’. It doesn’t really matter which cloud you’re on, but the idea of being on a cloud moved in the twentieth century from daydreaming to feeling extremely happy, giving it the meaning it has today.

No celebration is complete without etymology, of course, so hopefully you can now return to your parties with a greater sense of satisfaction. Happy birthday, Varsity!

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