Lentils in the sky

Canberra is spacious, and the sky always seems open. Recently when we were out and about we noticed the cloud formations far on the horizon, which the scientist driving the car identified as “lenticular”.

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I immediately wanted to know where the word came from, and remembering piano lessons from long ago guessed that it is related to the Italian lente, slow. After all, the clouds seemed to be hardly moving. Incorrect, as I found out when I had enough phone reception to look up the etymology of lenticular. It does come from Latin, but is actually from lens, lentis, meaning lentils. All so obvious once you know.


I had never really thought of Romans eating lentils – I am sure we did not hear about them on the menu in the feasts we read about in “Roman life and customs” at school. It was all vino (wine), panem (bread) and piscis (fish). Did those ancient Italians look up to the sky and see lentils? What about the other cloud names: cirrus, hair tendril or curl; stratus, layer; cumulus, heap or pile; even nimbus, cloud (a bit obvious)?

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But no, from further online searches I found out that it was not until the nineteenth century that Luke Howard, a British pharmacist who loved to observe and paint clouds, wrote a classification according to their shapes.

I suppose “lentil clouds”, or “hair tendril clouds” etc. did not sound like real science, so following the custom of the time he used Latin. But anyone without a good knowledge of Latin needs to look the names up. To me they have a feeling of the nineteenth century, and somehow lose the aspects of poetry which could go with the science of clouds. It is there in the everyday language: Lentils, tendrils, heaps, layers.