Q From Jeff Grindle: I am curious about the term meteoric rise. Since meteors fall to the earth and do not rise back up from it, this term doesn’t appear to make sense. Several online sources I’ve consulted agree that it’s an oxymoron but have no further explanation for its origin. I consider World Wide Words to be one of the premier English language sites available, and I would appreciate your insight on this strange term.
A Many thanks for your kind words and your interesting question. From our modern perspective, your puzzlement is understandable. The idiom does sound like a contradiction. However, when we look into the history of meteoric, it isn’t as silly as it sounds.
To start with, the phrase meteoric rise is a lot older than you might think. It starts to appear in print in the 1860s, though there are hints that it may be older. Since then, the phrase has itself rapidly risen in popularity and has become a cliché best avoided. This is an early example:
He [Lord Byron] called himself, in one of his poems, “The grand Napoleon of the realms of rhyme;” and there is some similarity between the suddenness and splendour of his literary career and the meteoric rise and domination of the First Bonaparte.
A Complete Manual of English Literature, by Thomas Budd Shaw, 1865.
Older forms are meteoric career, known from the early part of the century (for example, in A Year in Europe by John Griscom, dated 1823), and meteoric talent, which is recorded from 1833. These and your form are all based on a figurative sense of meteoric that came into existence about 1820.
One reason why the expression now seems wrong is that we’ve lost a key part of the image in the minds of these early users. For them, something meteoric began unexpectedly and spectacularly but soon sputtered and died. People had in mind the sudden appearance and transient brilliance of a meteor streaking across the night sky. By implication, a meteoric rise was swiftly followed by a meteoric fall that led to extinction of talent or reputation. Both rise and fall here are themselves figurative, with no implication of physical direction, though part of the idea behind it may have been that a meteor appearing low in the sky seems to rise as it travels towards the zenith. I’ll leave it to psychologists of language to explain why we should now stress the rise and not the fall.
Incidentally, meteor derives from a Greek word meaning raised or lofty. Its first sense in English was of any atmospheric phenomenon, hence meteorology for the study of the atmosphere and weather. Meteors were divided into several classes: an aerial meteor might be a cloud; watery meteors were rain, snow, hail and the like; a 1576 translation of a work by Erasmus mentioned “hoar frosts and such like cold meteors”. A fiery meteor might be a shooting star but could also be lightning. However, from quite early on, meteor by itself came to refer specifically to the bright streak caused by an extra-terrestrial object heated to incandescence in the upper atmosphere.