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"The hoary meteor fell".

I recently had occasion to look through John Greenleaf Whittier's 1866 poem, "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl," which was inspired by a days-long snowstorm hitting New England. My reading came to a halt at line 46: "All day the hoary meteor fell."

Wait, what? What did meteors have to do with snowfall? Then I remembered reading a similar usage in a 1604 treatise by King James I of England titled A Counterblaste to Tobacco. There he denounced smoking as "hatefull to the Nose" and "dangerous to the Lungs." True enough, though his impassioned condemnation apparently had little effect. In paragraph 11, however, he referred to "Raynes, Snowes, Deawes, hoare Frostes, and such like waterie Meteors."

With my interest piqued, it was high time to visit the Library of Congress, my ever-reliable resource for such questions. The library's News & Current Periodical Reading Room has a copy of the truly massive Webster's New International Dictionary, 2nd edition (1937). Its definitions for meteor include brief flashes due to incoming space rocks, of course, but also this: "any phenomenon or appearance in the atmosphere." It went on to define aerial meteors as winds, aqueous meteors as rain and snow, and luminous meteors as halos and rainbows. Finally, it listed lightning and meteors from space as igneous meteors.

In more recent times, "meteor" has come to mean only the kind that originates in outer space. But it sure looks as if this older meaning is the root of meteorology, the science of weather.

I took a second look into the dictionary and found that the science of space rocks is meteoritics. The tongue-twisting name for its practitioners is meteoriticists.

John Lockwood * Washington, D.C.

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Title Annotation:FROM OUR READERS
Author:Lockwood, John
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Article Type:Letter to the editor
Date:Oct 1, 2017
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