Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Meteoric rise of the falling star

with 15 comments

Photo of a part of the sky during a meteor sho...
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Now I’m not a rocket surgeon, but I do know that meteors don’t rise. In fact, they are often called ‘falling stars’. And so is it strange that ‘meteoric rise’ is such a common expression? For example:

Youth Olympics Games 2010: Jade Jones’ meteoric rise continues with taekwondo gold (Telegraph online)

‘Meteoric salary rises’ fuel £1,000-an-hour cost of a lawyer in the City (Mail online)

Out of that determination came the largest Aids charity in Africa – TASO, and her own meteoric rise to the top of Actionaid International. (BBC website)

Well, its use certainly bothers Guy Keleny, as he explains in The Independent’s Errors and Omissions column:

“Meteoric” has acquired a meaning almost opposite to the one it started out with. The writer… describing the company’s rise as meteoric, meant to convey that it has been swift and spectacular. But meteors do not rise; they fall. They blaze briefly in the night sky and as quickly disappear. So a meteoric career is one of spectacular success followed by sudden oblivion.

I’m not so sure. Meteors travel very fast indeed (albeit downwards) thus perhaps justifying the use of  ‘meteoric’ in the phrase ‘meteoric rise’. And the Oxford Dictionary of English happily allows that one definition of ‘meteoric’ is ‘very rapid’.

The Wordwatch jury is out on this one.



Written by Wordwatch

05/10/2010 at 5:30 pm

15 Responses

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  1. I do hope that your jury will come back into court to gave a swift non-guilty verdict. The word ‘meteoric’ in English has never had anything to do with direction; it has to do with the appearance and velocity of a meteor, therefore: “transiently or irregularly brilliant, flashing or dazzling like a meteor; also rapid, swift” (OED). If metaphor had to be as literalistic as you suggest, the English language would indeed be an impoverished shadow of what it is.


    05/10/2010 at 5:42 pm

    • Hello, Dai — nice to see you again. Hope you’re well. Guy Keleny is the literalist with regards to ‘meteoric’. His view is interesting, but I think I agree more with your analysis. Thanks, Dai.


      05/10/2010 at 5:48 pm

  2. Hi Deborah,

    “Meteors travel very fast indeed (albeit downwards). . .”

    Not actually downwards, they’re just zipping their merry way along their orbit when this planet of our gets in the way once a year or so (though, like rivers, it’s never the same meteor twice).


    05/10/2010 at 5:46 pm

    • See — told you I wasn’t a rocket surgeon. They are also known as ‘falling stars’ though…


      05/10/2010 at 5:50 pm

      • Except when they appear to be going sideways or even upwards – it’s a big cosmos out there.

        Don’t know if you’re still in the north, but one of the best places to watch a meteor shower (I happened to be there, walking the Dales Way), is Appletreewick, near Skipton, North Yorkshire. Almost zero light pollution and, with a clear sky, it’s amazing. On the banks of the Wharfe you’ve got a long, unobstructed corridor of clear sky. There, I’m sure you were just dying to know that 😉


        05/10/2010 at 6:10 pm

        • No — I’m back in the saaf now. I’ve never seen a meteor shower, but would like to. Light pollution is a huge problem in most places.


          05/10/2010 at 6:20 pm

          • Leonids are due November 15-18 this year – time to suss out a dark spot, which might be tricky down there.

            After 3.00am is best, apparently, as the moon is up before then.


            05/10/2010 at 6:42 pm

  3. It’s not a linguistic crime but it’s at best a muddled metaphor. Meteors may not strictly fall but they sure appear to be falling. (Meteorites, however, do always fall.) What users are searching for is more like “skyrocketing.”

    Michael Farrell

    06/10/2010 at 4:49 pm

  4. Hi, Michael — ‘skyrocketing’ is a good alternative, but maybe difficult to use instead of ‘meteoric rise’ in, for example, any of the examples given in the post?


    06/10/2010 at 5:07 pm

    • True. Most of them would work as well with “rapid rise,” though it’s more pedestrian. “Skyrocketing” suggests recklessness or doom–an inevitable downward trajectory.

      Michael Farrell

      06/10/2010 at 5:25 pm

      • Yes, ‘rapid rise’ does sound weaker. I suppose the other problem with ‘meteoric rise’ is that it is a bit of a cliché. I’ll have to think of a suitable alternative…


        06/10/2010 at 6:29 pm

  5. Sorry folks, but I’m going to have to give you an argument on this one, otherwise I’d have to surrender my Dan Dare Club badge.

    Meteorites do not fall – that’s a very geo-centric perspective, and an illusion.

    Meteorites impact the earth at whatever angle of approach their orbit gives them, modified somewhat by atmospheric friction – which is only rarely a vertical apparent “fall”.

    Meteorite impact angles are as varied as the number of meteorites, from head-on, to very shallow angles, and anywhere in between.

    The movie Deep Impact demonstrates this beautifully, showing a cometary fragment in this case – though the principle is the same – slamming through the atmosphere, descending at a shallow angle until it intersects with the curve of the earth, with catastrophic results.

    Followed by an unlikely, schmaltzy, happy ending!


    06/10/2010 at 6:15 pm

    • Thanks, Ron. I wouldn’t dare argue with any of that!


      06/10/2010 at 6:31 pm

      • In Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner comments on the phrase ‘meteoric rise’. He says that ‘idiom trumps logic’. He notes that ‘meteoric rise’ is 30 times more common in print than the more logical ‘meteoric fall’. He also says:

        …’meteoric’ standing alone is now understood to signify quick success…


        07/10/2010 at 8:53 am

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