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Our new theme is terms from astronomy, many of them with metaphorical uses, and we begin with one that would also fit last week's theme. John Archibald Wheeler coined the term, and I've provided a definition. OED does not yet have this sense of the term.

black holeastronomy: an object whose gravity is so strong that nothing can escape, no matter how fast it moves (not even light). Such an object is caused by the collapse, or implosion, of an extremely massive object under the pull of its own gravity.

For metaphoric purposes, the salient feature of a black hole is that anything that gets close enough will inevitably and inescapably be sucked in by the gravity, never to exit.

black holemetaphoric: something that continually consumes and never releases resources or other thing.
    Tozzi's domain became known as the "black hole" of the regulatory process for its reputation of sucking in rules proposed by agencies and never letting them see light again.
    – Chris Mooney, Paralysis by analysis [etc.], Washington Monthly, May, 2004

    Rolls-Royce's pensions black hole has topped £1.15bn
    – Guardian Unlimited, Feb. 10, 2006
 
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Just today, after the Academy Awards, I read this: "He noted that the movie industry's box office was down, called Hollywood a "moral black hole," and opined that Spielberg was close to completing a "trilogy"about horrible things that have happened to the Jews."

Interesting use of "black hole."
 
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apogeemetaphoric: the culmination or highest point reached
(astronomy: the farthest point from earth in the orbit of the moon or other earth satellite)
    Dan Fortney's parents went orbital Saturday morning when the seventh-grader [won] the [area's] Times Spelling Bee. Fortney held his trophy after reaching the apogee of orthographic excellence.
    – Bill Dolan, Munster (Indiana) Times, March 5, 2006
Bonus word:
orthography
– the conventional spelling system of a language
    Saint Patrick was a proper man before he was a saint
    He was shaky in his Latin, his orthography was quaint
    – Ogden Nash
Note: for apogee, the opposite (that is, the closest point of earth orbit) is perigee. For objects orbiting the sun, the equivalent terms are aphelion and perihelion.
 
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As previous words of the day we've presented and distinguished meteor, meteoroid and meteorite, all as astronomical terms. There's a figurative use as well.

meteoric – of very sudden brilliance, swiftly rising and seemingly coming from nowhere.
Usually refers to transient brilliance, but not always, as in our quotation.
    Cyrus H. K. Curtis, the poor boy from Maine, was starting on his meteoric career, which was destined to make him millions as owner of The Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies' Home Journal …
    – Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends & Influence People
 
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quote:
meteoric – of very sudden brilliance, swiftly rising and seemingly coming from nowhere.

That explains it. I always thought "meteoric rise" was a solecism, as meteors fall.
 
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Many of our astronomical words are reasonably familiar. Today's word is inserted just to show you that I know some obscure ones too.

nutation [from Latin for 'to nod']
astronomy: periodic increases and decreases in the "tilt" of an orbit
medical: uncontrolled nodding

Forgive me if I cannot find any non-technical usage examples. But doesn't this word have wonderful potential for metaphoric use? "I nutated off throughout the professor's boring lecture."
 
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Excellent illustration distinguishing among rotation, precession and nutation.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nutation

(I always enjoy nice distinction -- passacaglia v. chaconne, zeugma v. syllepsis, even "nice" v. nice.)


RJA
 
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I giggled when I read the medical definition of 'nutation'. The first thing that comes to mind is the little (toy? decorative?) dogs that sit in the back window of a car, and nod with the slightest movement.
 
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Yes, Lori! I remember those little dogs...do they still have them? Or what about bobbleheads?
 
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Today's term can be confusing. It measures distance, but some authors see the word 'year' and think of it as measuring time. Arguably our second and fourth quotes exemplify that error.

light year
1) astronomical (first two quotes): a certain huge measure of distance, used in measuring interstellar space. It is the distance light travels in a year.
2) metaphoric (last two quotes): a very large distance or figurative distance

The astronomical light year is sometimes called about 6 trillion miles (9½ trillion km.), but sometimes 6 billion. Neither is error, because 'billion' is ambiguous. See bonus word.)
    Q: How long is a light year? A: It's a measure of distance -not time. A light year is the number of miles light can travel in a year which works out at quite a long way - 5.866 billion miles to be exact.
    – Glasgow Sunday Mail, Feb 12, 2006

    A massive cosmic explosion … could be the biggest since the Big Bang - and is the oldest ever seen. It happened an amazing 12.8 billion years ago - when the universe was just [sic] 9OO million years old. The blast would have been … the collapse of a big star that can form black holes capable of swallowing up entire galaxies. Its light has just reached us after 12.8 billion light years.
    – Life Style Extra, (UK), March 9, 2006

    Quoting a speaker regarding campaign donations: "There's a light-year's difference between the Hawaii Democratic party getting involved in the [Rhode Island] Senate race and Rhode Islanders giving to Rhode Islanders."
    – Providence (RI) Journal, March 7, 2006

    At the finish, he was .72 of a second ahead of Walchhofer — a light-year in downhill racing.
    – Deseret News, UT - Feb 13, 2006
bonus word: billion – to USns, a thousand million; to UKers a million millions, which USns call a 'trillion'. That is, a UK 'billion' means what USns call a 'trillion': ten to the twelfth power.

This message has been edited. Last edited by: wordcrafter,
 
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Not so egregious an error as this one, according to Wiki:

"Han Solo, in A New Hope, boasts that the Millennium Falcon made the 'Kessel Run' in less than twelve parsecs as evidence that it is a 'fast ship.' The parsec is a unit of distance, not time."

(PS: "UKer" is too close to "euchre.")


RJA
 
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nebula
astronomy: a gas-mass or dust-mass within a galaxy
figurative: something ill-defined or insubstantial; a hazy mass or cloud.

For the astronomical definition, a picture is worth a thousand words, so I direct you magnificent pictures here and here. The figurative use of our term is infrequent but can be just as beautiful, as in this quote which I crib from OED:
    This nebula of a man, so long inert, was starting slowly to evolve.
    – Olivia Manning, Great Fortune
 
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Another metaphoric use of "light year" is a long time. Of course it's wrong, but that's the way our language grows, by the insertion of almost any word that sounds like it might conceivably fit, until any word can come to mean almost anything, even its antonym
 
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quote:

nutation [from Latin for 'to nod']
astronomy: periodic increases and decreases in the "tilt" of an orbit
medical: uncontrolled nodding


botany: nodding movement of plants as they grow. Nice video here.
 
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constellation
astronomy: a formation of stars seen, in the sky, as forming a figure
metaphoric: a collection or gathering, usually of prominent persons or things
[from L. com- + stella star]
    The 2,100 entries in this eminently researched collection form the constellation of collected wisdom in American political debate.
    – home page of AHD's site, describing its collection of quotations
 
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