The Etymology of “Meteor”

“Meteor” comes from the Greek metéōron, literally meaning “thing high up.” In 15th c. English, “meteor” could refer to any atmospheric phenomena, which were differentiated by various classifications of meteors. Hence “meteorology” as the study of atmospheric conditions, rather than just meteors.

The term came to English in the late 15th century, from the Middle French météore, from Medieval Latin meteorum. The Greek predecessor was a nominalization of the adjective metéōros, “raised from the ground, hanging, lofty” (metá, “by means of, in the midst of, among, between” + aeírō, “to lift, to heave, to raise up”).

Classifications included:

  • aerial meteors – notable winds and tornadoes and such
  • aqueous meteors – water-based atmospheric phenomena such as rain, snow, hail, dew, frost, and clouds
  • luminous meteors – auroras, rainbows, and other light-based phenomena
  • igneous meteors – fiery-looking phenomena such as lightning and shooting stars

Around 1590, the English word began to take on the more specific, fiery extraterrestrial meaning we use today.

Semi-related terms: “Comet” and “asteroid” also come from Ancient Greek. The former comes from komḗtēs, “longhaired,” in reference to the comet’s tail. The latter more or less means “star-like” or “star-shaped” from astḗr, “star” + eîdos, “form” (and for the same reason, starfish belong to the class Asteroidea).

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