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.
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.
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