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By Betty Vanderwielen

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

Funky Phrases


When a person feels things are at their very worst, a friend might try to offer hope by saying, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” The advice is based on the observed phenomenon that when clouds disperse and sunlight begins to shine through, the first sign is the appearance of a silvery edge on the cloud. The inferred meaning is that if the depressed person looks hard enough, he or she will discover something good comes out of their misery. So where did the phrase originate?

Sources attribute the first written use of the phrase to John Milton of “Paradise Lost” fame. The saying comes not from that work but from the masque, “Comus,” written by Milton in 1634. A masque, a popular type of entertainment during the Renaissance period, was so named because it generally used amateur performers wearing masks representing allegorical figures. In “Comus,” the allegory is about The Lady whose chastity is about to be tested.

Alone and frightened in a dark woods, The Lady nevertheless professes her belief that “the Supreme Good… Would send a glistering guardian, if need were, / To keep my life and honour unassailed.” Presumably as a reward for her faith, she receives a sign: “…there does a sable [black] cloud / Turn forth her silver lining on the night, / And casts a gleam over this tufted grove.”

According to the internet site The Phrase Finder, Milton’s phrase ushered in a host of subsequent literary references to clouds and silver linings, sometimes simply referred to as “Milton’s clouds.” By the Victorian era the wording of the phrase had been generalized to “There’s a silver lining to every cloud.”

A completely different sense of the proverb comes from an entry in “” According to information from Historianact, in the American Civil War and possibly in earlier wars as well, “The ‘cloud’ referred to the plumes of smoke from the enemy artillery, and the ‘silver lining’ was the glint of morning sun off the artillery in the background.”

Because battles usually started at pre-dawn, morning fog was sometimes confused with enemy smoke. Veteran soldiers learned to “avoid the clouds with the silver lining,” and head for the fog patches which offered concealment as they shot at their silver-glinting enemies.

Later day weapons producing less glint and no smoke contributed to the abandonment of that use of the cloud proverb, but poets and songwriters kept the Victorian sense of the phrase alive. According to an account from the website, the phrase “every cloud has a silver lining” appears in 181 song lyrics sung by 94 artists as part of 100 albums.

Typical of the hopeful songs is one entitled “Look for the Silver Lining” from a 1950 Judy Garland album entitled “Till the Clouds Roll By.” Garland sings, “Look for the silver lining / Whenever a cloud appears in the blue / Remember somewhere the sun is shining / And so the right thing to do is make it shine for you… / So always look for the silver lining / And try to find the sunny side of life.”

Other lyrics, however, suggest there might be some tarnish on that silver lining. A 2009 song called “Cave In” by Owl City reads, “If the bombs go off / The sun will still be shining (the sun will still be shining) / Because we’ve heard it said that every mushroom cloud has a silver lining.”

Voicing even more skepticism is the song “Broken Bubble” by the American punk rock band Ten Foot Pole which reconfigures the hopeful phrase. The coming of age lyrics include the lines, “Wake up kid and stop your whining / Every silver cloud has a black lining / The world hasn’t changed / It just broke your bubble / Now you see you can’t hide from trouble.”

The rest of the song asks listeners whether they have the strength to maintain their values, to control their own fate, or whether they need to create a façade of toughness at the expense of others.

Ultimately even that misconfiguration of the proverb hints at hope.


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