This week, we’ve had quite the show. No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump: I’m talking about the Perseid meteor shower. It’s fitting a stargazer can behold so many shooting stars during these annual Perseids, because the origin of meteor is in many ways all about plurals.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites meteor in the late 15th-century in a plural form (metheours), naming “a treatise on atmospheric phenomenon.” English owes this usage to the French meteores, in turn from the Latin meteora. These are largely indebted to one treatise in particular: Aristotle’s Meterologica, which was sometimes recorded as Meteora in Latin.
In Meterologica, Aristotle discusses various topics, such as evaporation, earthquakes, weather, and the atmosphere, as well as other geographic and geologic phenomena. Aristotle: philosopher, scientist, weatherman.
Meteorologists, of course, study weather and the atmosphere, not meteors. So how is a shooting star connected to partly cloudy?
In the 16th century, early meteorologists classified meteors into four types, according to the OED:
Atmospheric phenomena were formerly often classed as 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.).
Today, of course, we inherited a more narrow understanding of meteor, of course, but the further etymology of the word shows what all the phenomena have in common.
Like its direct Latin descendant meteora, the Ancient Greek μετέωρα (meteora) was a plural noun: “celestial phenomenon.” Literally, though, it means “things lifted up off the ground.” You know, like rain, rainbows, shooting stars, or the other atmospheric matters happening over our heads? Meteor joins two elements: 1) μετα- (meta), a versatile prefix suffix denoting, among other things, “over” and “beyond,” and 2) a form of the verb ἀείρειν (aeirein), “to raise” or “lift up.”
Meta- survives today not only in technical words like metaphysics and metathesis, but also as a term in its own right, used especially for self-referential cultural production. For example, a TV show about a TV show may be called “very meta.” While it may look quite foreign, ἀείρειν (aeirein) lives on in all of our postmodern hearts: It produced aorta. In Greek, ἀορτή (aorte) literally means “that which is hung.” Hippocrates used the term for bronchial tubes, while Aristotle, adding anatomist to his résumé, applied the term to the main artery to the heart. If you look at the body’s aorta, the name is quite apt.
Artery also derives from aeirein. Perhaps all this body talk makes you queasy? You might want to go out and get some air. Er—that, too, might derive from aeirein. But while you’re out there, don’t forget to look up.