I usually stick to writing about editing and publishing here and comment about language usage elsewhere, but I’ve recently noticed a lot of people pondering the seemingly contradictory phrase “meteoric rise”:
If meteors fall to earth, why do people say 'meteoric rise'? You might as well talk about 'rocketing to the depths'
— Tom Albrighton (@tomcopy) July 7, 2016
When people rise rapidly, why is it called a meteoric rise? Doesn't meteors fall? And explode? And die?
— Troy (@ivyleaguereport) June 19, 2016
The oft-used term "meteoric rise" I feel does not make sense, as meteors fall.
— Casey Lembke (@cheese09) June 14, 2016
"(Blah, blah, blah)…Trump's meteoric rise to fame!"
You know meteors 'fall' from the sky, right?
— Moisticle (@timdanielgould) June 10, 2016
Why do people say "meteoric rise"? Don't meteors fall to the ground? ???? https://t.co/RK7LguS8xm
— cory (@coryjedwards_) June 9, 2016
So rarely do I get the chance to combine my language pedantry with my knowledge-of-astronomy-from-my-physics-days pedantry that I had to jump on this opportunity to assail you with a double dose of tedious über-pedantry. Ready? Here we go!
The phrase is pretty old
Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that “meteoric rise” grew steadily in popularity over the twentieth century, and its pervasiveness today probably makes it seem like a recent coinage.
But a description of a rise as meteoric first appears in the Google Books corpus in 1853, meaning it was probably in use for a while before then:
But that happy, though somewhat meteoric, rise of a new science from the shaken ashes of the old mystery was not long of beginning; for, in the midst of all the gathering and crowding details, wrought out by the post-alchemical craftsmen, a true chemical principle began to gleam.
(From The Northern British Review, 1853)
At that point meteoric was still used to refer to atmospheric phenomena in general—the same reason we refer to studies of weather as meteorology. It’s basically equivalent to “stratospheric rise,” a phrase that doesn’t seem to rankle careful writers and editors as much.
Even earlier, Elizabethan writers, including Charles Fitzgeoffrey and William Shakespeare, used meteor as a metaphor for a transiently brilliant person who appeared suddenly. That’s because…
A meteor is the streak of light, not the rock
A meteoroid is a space rock (think asteroid, but smaller). A meteor is the streak of light that a meteoroid produces when it burns up in our atmosphere. The meteoroids responsible for most of our meteors are the debris—like muddy footprints—left behind by comets as they orbit the sun. When the earth passes through that debris, the rocks that enter our atmosphere give us a light show in the form of a meteor shower. And if any part of a meteoroid survives the trip and lands on earth, it becomes a meteorite.
Meteors seem to appear out of nowhere and dazzle us with brilliance, although they can be short-lived, so most references to a person’s meteoric rise are apt, especially if their sudden popularity was unexpected. All this is to say, don’t avoid using “meteoric rise” because it seems contradictory. In fact, the phrase makes perfect sense. But do avoid using it because it’s long become hackneyed and stale.