“Isn’t that word an accident that hasn’t been put right?” asked a colleague. “Surely a meteorologist forecasts the weather, not meteors.”
Not really: the only accident is the process whereby language—especially spoken—can start to centre on a single one of a word’s denotations, until that becomes its normal usage: and so anorexia comes to mean anorexia nervosa; discrimination comes to mean unfair discrimination; broadcast comes to mean broadcast by radio or television; and so on.
Meteorology in common speech has come to mean weather forecasting. But in its technical sense, it is a generic term that denotes the study of any atmospheric phenomenon.
The OED reveals a semantic process. Meteors seems to have been a direct translation of the ordinary Greek expression τὰ μετέωρα—things above: and from the 16th century there was the division into
- airy meteors (winds)
- watery meteors (rain, snow, hail, dew, etc.)
- luminous meteors (the aurora, rainbow, sun halo, etc.)
- fiery meteors (lightning, shooting stars, etc.)
Aristotle’s Meteorologica (c. 340 BC) had already included all of these things and more: geography, geology, the tides, and of course the weather.
But even by Shakespeare’s time, if you used the word meteor by itself, the listener first thought of a shooting star—and that is the modern assumption.
However, meteorology continues to denote a specific area of science. There is a good explanation of it on the website of the University of Edinburgh:
‘Meteorology is the scientific study of the Earth’s atmosphere. It is a branch of physics, and of geophysics, requiring many of the same mathematical and computational techniques as physical oceanography or solid-Earth geophysics. The university has a long and distinguished record of meteorological research and teaching …’
And then there is the Met Office, founded by Admiral Fitzroy in the 1850s. It is essentially a government department, and its function is to provide weather forecasts for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, for shipping in general and for the general population.
Within a short time of being founded it was able to benefit significantly from the advent of telegraphic communication, which enabled it to forecast the weather by using up-to-the-moment information from an array of weather stations; and since the end of the 20th century its accuracy has become almost unthinkably better, as a result of two things:
- access to data from satellites
- the use of computer programs to make forecasts.
Its computing resources may be among the most sophisticated on the planet; and it is now involved in predicting the effects of global warming.