This may sound like a strange question...
February 9, 2014 2:45 PM   Subscribe

But I was wondering, why do you think we still use the terms "sunrise" and "sunset"? We know that the Earth revolves around the Sun (not the other way around) so the Sun isn't really 'rising' or 'setting', right?
posted by Neutron12 to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Because it still describes what appears to be happening.
posted by Kriesa at 2:47 PM on February 9, 2014 [15 favorites]

Despite the scientific basis behind it, there is still the visual perception of the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. These words describe specific points in time.
posted by RainyJay at 2:48 PM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Because those two times of day are useful benchmarks to make note of, and we have to have some way to refer to them. I suppose if someone wanted to start calling them "daystart" and "nightstart", that could catch on? But until it does, we only have the terms we have. Or, maybe if journalistic style guides started recommending only "daybreak" and "gloaming", in the interest of scientific accuracy?

Language is an organic thing that isn't really owned by any one group of people. You can't change it by fiat. The only way we could force language to conform obliquely to pure hard scientific fact would be to establish some kind of committee which would probably have to enforce the use of preferred scientific language with actual consequences, the way the FCC keeps swearing off airwaves in the US. And even then, that doesn't always work -- see, for instance, the Norwegian language conflicts.
posted by Sara C. at 2:58 PM on February 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Language is powerful stuff, and filled with metaphor. Language is filled with phrases that do not with their connotation mean exactly what the words equal, but the denotion is vivid and understood. So yes, the sun is fixed in space and does not rise. But when people experience intense emotions, they do not literally "fall apart," a person making a tough decision is not actually stuck "between a rock and a hard place," and we no longer ask people undergoing a painful surgery to "bite the bullet" (historically it was a leather strap, thanks Mr. Kipling for substituting the more vivid and poetic bullet).

Language does so much more than record reality, but also shapes it, and helps us make sense of our places in the world. Referring to the sun as rising and setting allows us, in some small way, to feel as though we are fixed within our worlds/universe. As an aside, to constantly acknowledge that we are not the center of it all would in fact be very tiring, and metaphor allows the brain to substitute one thing for another in ways that are meaningful to us when the thing we are actually describing would be difficult to approach or comprehend on an intellectual level. Metaphor also allows us to quickly describe a situation in fewer words. Think of the concise nature of "sunrise" vs "the earth rotated again, bringing our region back into view of the sun." Or even, "Another dawn occurred." I'll keep fishing..."The sun appeared...." well, we know that the sun did not disappear. We just could not see it for a time. Without metaphor we'd spend a whole lot more time talking.
posted by bilabial at 2:58 PM on February 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

We still say all kinds of things that aren't scientifically backed up any more. See also: "heart" referring to deep desires, even though we know the brain is the seat of all thought; "Moonlight" even though we know it's actually reflected sunlight, etc.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:58 PM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sadly, as noted above, "sunrise" and "sunset" are far too entrenched in the language to eradicate. The best you can do is to use one of the several given alternatives, such as "dawn"/"dusk". (However, none of these really have precisely the same meaning; you can't watch a dawn, after all. I suppose you could watch the dawn, but not a dawn.)

Or: if you're really just looking for terms that actually connote the Earth's rotation, you could introduce a competing standard of your own!

It's not easy, because a term like "Earthturn" is too ambiguous to apply to either case specifically. The best I can think of is "apostrophe" (from the Greek, meaning "to turn away") and "metanoia" (also Greek, meaning "change of heart" in the religious sense, which could be interpreted as "turning toward the light"). They have the disadvantage of already meaning several different things already, and of being four syllables each, but you must admit they sound seriously cool. ("What a beautiful metanoia/apostrophe!")
posted by Androgenes at 3:17 PM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

The words aren't outdated.

There are no sunrises or sunsets in space for the sun is always shining. And seen from space, the earth is undergoing both a constant sunrise and unending sunset as it spins, just in different places. The whole idea of a sunset or sunrise only makes sense if you're on the earth (or another world) looking at the skyline in a given place. And if you're doing that, then yes, the sun seems to rise and set.
posted by Thing at 3:21 PM on February 9, 2014 [8 favorites]

There's always a bunch of stuff going on, and the best point of view to adopt depends on what you care about. The stuff doesn't care how you choose to describe it - it just does what it does, regardless. There is no inherently "wrong" point of view. Pick the one that suits your present purposes.

If you're interested in understanding the relationships between the apparent motions of sun and and moon and planets with respect to the "fixed" stars, adopting the point of view that puts the sun at the centre of a motionless solar system with spinning planets in orbit around that and the moons in orbits around the planets hugely simplifies the arithmetic involved.

If you care about the fact that the "fixed" stars do in fact have small but detectable relative apparent motions, you need to model both the Sun's orbit in the Milky Way and the Milky Way's motion with respect to other galaxies. From that point of view, the Sun is no longer central.

If you're interested in taking photographs of sunsets and sunrises and you care more about those events in and of themselves rather than their relationships to other celestial events or other places on Earth, then adopting a fixed-Earth point of view hugely simplifies communicating with other people.
posted by flabdablet at 3:41 PM on February 9, 2014

[Folks, this needs to not become a general discussion of inaccurate phrases.]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 3:44 PM on February 9, 2014

If you want to be picky about scientific accuracy, when you see the sun on the horizon it isn't really there. It was there eight minutes ago, but is about one sun diameter below the horizon at the moment you observe it. Eight minutes is the time sunlight takes to travel from the sun to your eye.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:49 PM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Actually, geocentrism is perfectly valid.

dmd is right. The frame of an observer on the surface of the earth is a completely valid frame, and we can transform between frames trivially. The sun is certainly moving relative to the frame in which I am stationary.

Astronomers still use inherently geocentric language (e.g. 'transit', 'rising', 'setting') to describe the relative motion of astronomical bodies.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:57 PM on February 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

They're short, easy, descriptive words that work great for what they refer to. I dare say that if there were good, scientifically-accurate alternative terms that roll off the tongue as easily, you'd have put them in your question.
posted by The World Famous at 3:58 PM on February 9, 2014

Everything is moving relative to everything else, so I don't see why it would be considered inaccurate. It rises over the horizon and sets behind it from the perspective of an observer at a given location.
posted by the jam at 6:47 PM on February 9, 2014

We know that the Earth revolves around the Sun (not the other way around) so the Sun isn't really 'rising' or 'setting', right?

That is completely wrong. The sun appears and disappears because the Earth is revolving on its axis once per day. It takes a year to go around the Sun.
posted by w0mbat at 10:41 PM on February 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

The words have been in use for around 600 years now; sometimes language can be sticky this way and the words continue in use, even though the context has changed. See also "horsepower" still in use as a unit for example!

Language evolves organically and sometimes there is no "good" reason for the form of some words, or exceptions to patterns, just that a critical mass of people learn and use them.
posted by dave99 at 12:34 AM on February 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's the way it looks, the terms are well-established and widely understood. To change such terms to reflect precise scientific accuracy would be absurdly finicky and inconvenient. We still talk about shooting stars even though we know they're not stars. And so on.
posted by Decani at 3:22 AM on February 10, 2014

I mean, what else are you going to call it?
posted by mskyle at 6:36 AM on February 10, 2014

I mean, what else are you going to call it?

Dawn and dusk.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:55 AM on February 10, 2014

Daybreak and nightfall.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:00 PM on February 10, 2014

"A romantic dinner overlooking the ocean where we will have a perfect view of the dusk."

Nope. Doesn't work.
posted by The World Famous at 2:54 PM on February 10, 2014

"A romantic dinner overlooking the ocean where we will have a perfect view of the dusk."

Nope. Doesn't work.

Next time try it on the west coast.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:36 AM on February 11, 2014

I live in LA. The sunsets are beautiful. The dusk is OK, too, but not as spectacular most of the time.
posted by The World Famous at 9:33 AM on February 11, 2014

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