The copy editor who came in from the cold
Why isn't a meteorologist someone who studies meteors, and other questions from a cold snap.
Are there copy-editing tips to be derived from the cold snap most of the United States has just been through? Well, yes, of course, almost any life experience provides opportunities to learn to be more concise and accurate in our communications.
For a start, "breaking" and "setting" are generally redundant with regard to temperature records. The same temperature that "breaks" an old record "sets" a new one. There's an understandable appeal in being able to say, "Today's temperatures shattered the record for January temperatures here," as if a record were that sheet of ice it is so satisfying to pry off your windshield in one big piece.
But in a reference to "record-setting low temperatures across the region this morning," you're better off with simply "record low temperatures."
Record, as a noun, came into English around 1300, borrowed from French and meaning "testimony committed to writing," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. But the word is rooted in notions of memory, of things known by heart (cor comes from the Latin word for "heart").
The noun sense of record to mean the best or highest achievement, as in sports, is a relative latecomer. The Oxford English Dictionary's first example of this usage goes back only to 1860, in a citation from the Milwaukee (Wis.) Daily Sentinel: "If any other locomotive can beat this record we should like to have the particulars."
Of course, any temperature that is recorded becomes a "record temperature" in a literal sense. And some people do dutifully record each day's highest and lowest temperatures on their calendars. But record has now acquired this sense of "record of some superlative."
Something similar has happened with phenomenon. It first meant fact or occurrence: Snow is a phenomenon of winter in many places. Now it means a remarkable fact or occurrence, and it's often personalized: a hot-ticket baseball player may be described as a "pitching phenomenon."
Meteorology seems to be like baseball: There are always statistics – lots of statistics. When we hear that temperatures hit a "record low" in this or that place, it often means not "lowest ever recorded in that spot" but more likely "lowest temperature ever recorded on that date in that spot." I suspect there are extremist connoisseurs who track things like "lowest-ever temperature recorded in that spot on a given date in a nonpresidential year" or some such.
While we're at it, why is the study of the weather known as meteorology and not "weatherology" or something else? Shouldn't meteorology be the study of meteors?
Both meteor and meteorologist derive from a Greek word meteoron, meaning "thing high up," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Meteorology came into English in the early 17th century. So it was an early contender for the job now filled by astronomy, etymologically "the arrangement of the stars."
Astrology, from the late 1300s, is also built from astro plus the same logy particle familiar from the names of so many disciplines. Considered a pseudoscience today, astrology was once identical with astronomy, with an additional sense, Online Etymology notes, of "practical astronomy, astronomy applied to prediction of events."
At this time of year, though, the ones we turn to for prediction of events are not astrologers but meteorologists.