Q&A: Why don’t meteorologists study meteors?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, the sky's the limit…

Q: Hi AWC, can we discuss the weather today?

A: Have we really run out of things to say that we’ve resorted to the weather?

Q: Not at all! I meant, can we DISCUSS the weather.

A: Ahhhh, um, sure. What’s your question?

Q: It’s an oldie but a goodie: why is the study of weather called “meteorology”? Shouldn’t that be for the study of meteors?

A: Haha, yes, it can be confusing until you understand the etymology.

Q: What do insects have to do with it?

A: Nooo, that’s ENTOmology. Etymology is the origin of words – we’re always looking at them in our chats. And according to the web boffins in the know, it was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who first coined the term after writing a book called Meteorologica

Q: What was the book about?

A: It was about 200 pages. He had large handwriting.

Q: Haha.

A: Seriously though, it was all about how philosophy affected stuff in the atmosphere including a bunch of now debunked theories on how clouds were formed, as well as rain, snow, wind, hail, thunder and lightning, plus plenty more.

Q: You spelt “lightening” wrong there.

A: No we didn’t. “Lightening” is usually a verb, meaning to make less heavy or less dark. This shouldn’t be confused, but often is, with the noun “lightning” – a visible flash of energy from a cloud (from the Old English lightnen – “to make bright”). They’re different words.

Q: Speaking of differences… What's the difference between a hippo and a Zippo?

A: No idea.

Q: One’s really heavy and the other is a little lighter!

A: Okay, that was so bad it’s actually quite good. But can we continue with “meteorology” now?

Q: Sorry, please, do go on.

A: So Aristotle may have been wrong about his weather ideas, but the name clearly stuck. Note, that the term came from “meteoron” – which was Greek for “things that are high up”.

Q: Anything high up?

A: Well yes, because back then, EVERYTHING up high was considered a meteor – it was simply an “atmospheric phenomenon” and included snowflakes, raindrops, hail; even wind. It wasn’t until the 1590s that the “fireball in the sky/shooting star” meaning for meteor came along.

Q: So everything was called a meteor?

A: Yep. In fact, there were once four categories of these atmospheric phenomena – “igneous meteors” (shooting stars, lightning) “aerial meteors” (wind), “aqueous meteors” (rain, hail, snow) and finally “luminous meteors” (rainbows, aurora).

Q: Oooh I like the sound of that last one!

A: Sadly only the shooting stars have retained the “meteor” name today. Rather ironic as it’s the only one NOT covered under the field of meteorology – which today relates to weather and climate. 

Q: What’s the difference between “weather” and “climate”?

A: Is this another joke?

Q: No. I really want to know.

A: Oh okay. At its simplest, “weather” is about short-term atmospheric changes, while “climate” describes the weather over a longer period of time. It’s one reason why pointing to a snowstorm (weather) as proof against global warming (long term climate) is flawed.

Q: So now for the big question. If meteorologists don’t study meteors, who does?

A: Meteoricists have that job.

Q: Thank you!

A: And fun fact – meteors are only called that when flying within our atmosphere. Once they hit the ground, they become “meteorites” and while still out in space, they’re known as “meteoroids”.

Q: Nice. Now, I hate to rain on your meteor shower, but I’ve had enough of talking about the weather for now. Goodbye.

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

Browse posts by category
Browse posts by category

Courses starting soon


Nice one! You've added this to your cart