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Into Thin Air

By
Samantha Enslen, Writing for

into thin air

We’ve all heard the phrase “to vanish into thin air.” It means to disappear completely from sight or existence.

But if you vanish into thin air, where do you go? And are things actually … thinner there?

Let’s find out.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms describes this term as using “the rarified atmosphere above the earth as a metaphor for an unknown location.”

And the air above the earth is rarified. It’s less dense than the air down here. In fact, 89% of the gases that cushion the earth are in the lowest two levels of our atmosphere—what are called the troposphere and stratosphere. The gases in the top three levels, in contrast, are spread out over a vast area. In other words, the air really is thin up there.

Shakespeare probably didn’t know the details of atmospheric pressure. Yet he introduced this phrase into our language. In The Tempest, the sorcerer Prospero writes of spirits that have “melted into air, into thin air.” See other phrases invented by Shakespeare.

Subsequent writers followed Shakespeare’s lead and used this expression to describe ghostly creatures. Over time, however, writers used it to describe concrete objects that seemed to disappear. 

As is, “Teacher, I can’t find my homework. It’s vanished into thin air!”

The phrase was famously used in the book Into thin Air, by John Krakauer. The book recounts how eight climbers perished in the snow and ice high atop Mount Everest. Two of the climbers were never found. They vanished, literally and figuratively, into the frigid air 8,000 meters above sea level.

So there are two tips for today: The air above the earth is much thinner than the air down here. And if you vanish into it, you disappear, leaving no trace of your existence.

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. Find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.

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