The Grammarphobia Blog

Meteoric language

Q: I’m putting together a planetarium exhibition on meteorites. My background documents often say pieces of a meteorite were “recovered” after falling to earth. Can we “recover” something we never had? I’d appreciate your help.

A: We checked all the many meanings of “recover” in the Oxford English Dictionary, and when used in reference to physical objects, it generally means to regain or reacquire something lost.

An old meaning of the verb “cover,” now obsolete, was to get or acquire. And the original, 14th-century meaning of “recover” (literally, “cover again”) was to win back ground lost in battle.

But etymology aside, astronomers and geologists use the word in a different sense. They quite routinely use “recover,” “recovered,” and “recovery” in writing about meteorite fragments found on earth, even though nobody had physical possession of them beforehand.

Though this use of “recover” might seem questionable, at least in the strictly literal sense of the word, we think it’s perfectly reasonable in a scientific context, like an exhibition at a planetarium.

As it happens, the OED does recognize “recover” as a technical term in astronomy. But it has a more celestial meaning than the earthbound one we’re talking about. It refers only to the observation of objects in space.

The OED defines this “recover” as meaning “to observe (an astronomical object, esp. a periodic comet) following an extended period during which it has not been visible or observed.”

The OED’s first citation for this sense of the word is from a 1901 issue of a scientific journal, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: “Professor Howe … recovered the comet on May 27, after its perihelion passage.”

This more recent citation is from a 2006 issue of the Guardian: “The dim comet was lost again until … it was recovered tracing a 5.4 year orbit about the Sun.”

But we think you’re safe using “recover” in reference to meteorites that have fallen to earth. Though the OED hasn’t yet recorded this sense of the word, scientists routinely use it that way, which is a pretty good argument in its favor.

For example, we found this example in a 1977 issue of the British magazine New Scientist:

“Analysis of the photographs suggested the fall of several kilogrammes of meteorites at a point some 150 km east of Edmonton. … A 2.1-kg freshly fallen meteorite was recovered only 500 metres from the predicted impact point.”

Scientists use “recover” even when the meteorites weren’t seen falling beforehand. That’s the case in this passage from Paul W. Hodge’s book Meteorite Craters and Impact Structures of the Earth (1994):

“The Haviland crater itself was not discovered until about 1925, when H. H. Nininger visited the Kimberley farm to recover the meteorites.”

Finally, Robert T. Dodd’s book Meteorites: A Petrologic-chemical Synthesis (1981) has this note about the naming of meteorites:

“A newly fallen or newly discovered meteorite is named for a locality or permanent geographic feature that is near its point of recovery. … The many meteorites recovered from Antarctica raise a serious problem of terminology.”

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