"Just stop trying to count clouds with me," I growled. "Talk sense. If you've' got a job for me, it's probably too dirty for me to touch. But I'll at least listen."

It could be understood "sound out", or "feel out"?

It's from Goldfish by Raymond Chandler.

  • Job 38:37 Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? I don't recognize the "idiom", but presumably it means Don't get smart with me! (where smart = clever, wise). Aug 22, 2015 at 15:32

2 Answers 2


Chandler's PI, Marlowe, has received a call from a woman whose voice he doesn't recognize. She tells him to see a lawyer named Rush Madder, and it's Madder whom Marlowe is talking to here. Marlowe is sure that Madder had the woman call, but when he asks Madder who she is, Madder asks, "Did somebody phone you?"

Marlowe makes the "count clouds" comment and threatens to go to the police. Madder stops him and admits that the caller was friend of his.

So Marlowe was sure that Madder was lying to him, and his comment likely means stop wasting my time by feigning ignorance. Counting clouds is as pointless and useless occupation and as big a waste of time as Madder's lying and stalling.

  • Is 'to count clouds' a set phrase or just a one-off expression used by the author?
    – user66974
    Aug 22, 2015 at 11:57
  • Yep, "counting clouds" is a pointless and meaningless activity. This meaning can be inferred even if you've never seen the term before.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 22, 2015 at 18:55
  • It's not quite a one-off expression by Chandler: it occurs literally in the context of meteorology and in flying, where it means to let one's attention wander from the duties of piloting an aircraft. So it's not a set phrase that caught on in the way that Chandler uses it.
    – deadrat
    Aug 22, 2015 at 19:14

Like deadrat, I believe it means to waste time or engage in a pointless and ill-defined activity.

Google ngram: count clouds

The earliest reference I can find is

Meanwhile, the child Dimey stitched away, and now the table-cloth was almost done. She thought, as soon as she finished it, she would begin to count clouds again—but, oh, what a sweet, low, hushing lullaby the little Robin woman sang! The Lady's Friend - Volume 6 - Page 393

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