Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

The Geminid meteor shower is one of the most exciting spectacles offered by the night sky and this year its peak occurred on the night of 13-14 December. Those lucky enough to see it – ideal conditions require clear skies and an absence of light pollution – will have seen bright streaks of light shoot across the sky. While most meteors – pieces of rock from space that pass into the Earth’s atmosphere and appear as bright lights in the sky – come from comets, the Geminids come from an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. The displays of shooting stars occur as the earth passes through the trail of debris left by the asteroid as it orbits around the sun.

The word meteor was formed in the 16th century from a Latin word ‘meteorum’ which was derived from the Greek meteōron meaning ‘thing high up’. The nature of meteors was discovered only in the early 19th century, before which they were thought to be atmospheric phenomena, like lightning. This explains the connection with the term meteorology, the science of studying the atmosphere, often with a view to predicting the weather.

The adjective meteoric has a literal meaning – relating to meteors – but is much more often used figuratively, to talk about rapid success: by far the most common collocate is the noun ‘rise’.  The related adverb meteorically collocates equally strongly with the verb ‘rise’. This is odd when you come to think of it, as we perceive meteors not as rising but as falling. In fact another name for them is falling star; which has to be a cue for a song.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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