When we talk about meteors today, we have a very specific phenomenon in mind–namely, a rock from space plummeting to earth. And when you look at the history of the word, it’s easy enough to see why we use it.
Meteor comes to us from the Ancient Greek meteora, which means “things pertaining to the heavens, celestial phenomena.” Okay, makes perfect sense then, right? But it’s kinda fun to trace that meteora to its root words, which literally mean “by means of” and “to be lifted, suspended, hovering in the air.” Keeping in mind that all ancient civilizations thought the Earth was the center of the universe, with understanding varying after that between the heavens being a dome suspended above the disc of the Earth to a giant sphere surrounding us with Earth at the center and planetary bodies in between us and the “edge” of space, it’s always interesting to see words that reflect the idea of all these things in relation to us. Meteors, then, are things lifted up and suspended, not coming down toward us.
This specific use of the word in English dates from 1590, but it’s worth noting that meteor was actually used to describe any heavenly phenomena. Atmospheric phenomena like wind were called aerial meteors, things like rain, snow, and hail were aqueous meteors, and then we had luminous meteors for the aurora and rainbows, and finally, igneous meteors to describe both lightning and shooting stars. The term meteor shower dates from 1853.