17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 12

Mind your language

I WAS wrapped up in a sort of horse blanket and standing in a field with Veronica by my side on the night of Thursday last week, ready to look at the spectacular shower of meteors in the constellation of Draco in the north- western sky. We didn't see a single shooting star because of the cloud, but meteorology has been haunting my life recently.

On the last day of my trip to Spain accompanying my husband, who was attending a medical 'conference', I found myself sheltering from the rain in a shop doorway of an agricultural sup- pliers in Zamora. Next to a tin of 'Mer- e (`Un solo bocado Basta') was a display of `Cynamid', a zoopharmaco- logical product designed to combat meteorismo in cattle and sheep. What could this alarming plague be, I won- dered — an attraction for thunder- bolts?

It was only on my return that I dis- covered the answer. Meteorismo (or French meteorisme) is the same as mete- orism in English: 'Flatulent distension of the abdomen with gas in the alimen- tary canal.' For all I know they speak of little else in Banbury or Chicago, but I can't say I've ever heard of it before.

I think the 'meteor' connection comes not from any fancied similarity to shooting stars, but, like the Meteoro- logical Office, owes its denomination to the complex of meteor ideas familiar to an earlier scientific world than our own.

The reason that the weather man comes under meteorology is that in for- mer centuries winds were classified as `aerial or airy meteors'; rain, snow, hail, dew and suchlike precipitation as `aqueous or watery meteors'; the aurora borealis or australis, rainbows and rings around the moon as 'luminous mete- ors'; and shooting stars and lightning as `fiery meteors'. This classification almost fits the system of the four ele- ments, and would, if meteorites had been classified as 'earthy meteors', but, like belemnite fossils, they were more often mistaken for 'thunder-bolts'.

So the poor moo-cows and baa-lambs of Zamora are given to attacks of the airy meteors, or wind. After sharing a plate of rather old squid with Veronica the next day, I wished that, like the beast of the field, I had access to a dose of Cynamid.

Dot Wordsworth