You might recognize these clouds, but can you name them? For years I have struggled with pinning one of the ten Latin cloud names to the clouds I see. There are two problems that has made my goal insurmountable: 1) the clouds rarely look the same from day to day and this makes it difficult for me to remember what a stratocumulus, altocumulus, or any other cloud looks like. There are no type specimens and field guides are all but useless. 2) the names of the clouds are confusingly similar and hard to remember. Just look at them:
Cirrus, Cirrocumulus, Cirrostratus, Altostratus, Altocumulus, Cumulus, Stratocumulus, Cumulobinumbus, Nimbostratus, Stratus.
Yes, I am sure you recognize some of them. But now close your eyes and try to recite them from memory.
See what I mean?
Why exactly are the names so difficult to remember? I have figured it out.
All ten names contain the same eleven letters: a i o u c l m n r s t.
All them names end in "us."
Only one cloud (nimbostratus) has a unique first name (nimbo).
The ten names are based on just five Latin terms (cirrus, cumulus, stratus, alto, nimbus), which appear alone or in combination with nearly identical modifiers (cirro, cumulo, strato, nimbo). The logic behind their coupling is not intuitive nor is it explained in any book. Why, for instance, is it cumulonimbus and not nimbocumulus? Why cirrostratus and not stratocirrus?
And why is "alto" used for the so-called "mid-level" clouds--altostratus and altocumulus? Alto means "high" does it not? How many high-mountain towns and ski resorts use "alto" or "alta" in their name? Plenty!
The Latin names of clouds were introduced in 1802 by a chemist and cloud lover named Luke Howard. His names were refined and expanded by other scientists at various International Meteorological Conferences over the years, and while they seem scientific, the names should be guidelines. They should not deter you from looking up and admiring the clouds.
That's all the clouds want from you.