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Friday, March 1, 2013

Why don't meteorologists study meteors?

We recently witnessed a particularly spectacular and dramatic visitation of a meteor. The media needed experts to comment, so naturally they contacted some... meteorologists.

Of course they didn't.

Meteorologists don't study meteors. They study the weather. But surely they should study meteors? Why don't they? Why is this word so perverse?

The explanation is that the word "meteor" originally covered a lot more territory than it does today. It comes from an ancient Greek word meteoros  (raised, lofty), and came to apply to almost all phenomena happening "up there" in the sky.

There were subclassifications of "upthereness":  aerial meteor or airy meteors (winds), aqueous meteor or watery meteors (rain, snow, hail, dew, etc.), luminous meteors (the aurora, rainbow, sun halo, etc.), and igneous meteor or fiery meteors (lightning, shooting stars, etc.). This broad usage survived a surprisingly long time after the word came into English in the 1500s. 

Gradually, however, in common usage "meteor" came to be used of only the last mentioned of the "fiery meteors": the shooting star.  Like the aurora, meteors came to be recognized as an astronomical rather than a weather phenomenon, so they were no longer studied by the weather specialists.

But the weather specialists clung on to their original name, literally the "upthere studiers", and that is why they are meteorologists but don't study meteors.

And the shooting star should land right about....here. Watch out, Willie!

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.