Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Miasma – Wacky Word Wednesday

Today’s Wacky Word Wednesday, a weekly celebration of the wackiest and most interesting words from around the world, is a lesson in health, hygiene and…bad air?

Before we get started, here is the definition from TermWiki.com:

mi·as·ma

[mahy-az-muh]

-noun
Noxious vapors from decomposing organic matter polluting the atmosphere; foreboding, unwholesome or oppressive atmosphere

A cartoon depiction of miasma, noxious vapors from decomposing organic matter polluting the atmosphere.

This word originated in the 1660s, from the Greek miasma, which means a stain or pollution; the word miainein, which is its verb form, means to pollute or to stain.

In the old days, it was believed that diseases were “caused by bad air from decomposing organic matter, as in a swamp.” Malaria, as an example, actually is derived from the Italian mala aria, meaning bad air. This concept is known as the miasma theory, originating during the Middle Ages and carrying on as the most prevalent theory that explained the spread of diseases through the next couple of centuries.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the Great Plague hit London; approximately 100,000 people, or 20% of London’s population at the time, fell victim to this disease. As an example of the prevalence of the miasma theory, doctors would wear face masks filled with sweet-smelling flowers to avoid inhaling bad air.

At the time, this theory seemed rational, continuing even into 19th century England, a time when industrialization and urbanization generated soot, filth and unclean air. Although there is a relationship between cleanliness and wellbeing, it was until the mid-1800s that the germ theory began to spread (no pun intended) and was gradually accepted.

But even with the dissolution of the miasma theory, the word miasma itself has since expanded its definition to include “a foreboding, unwholesome or oppressive atmosphere.” Below are some sentence examples articulating this meaning:

  • “But flowing beneath that miasma of reflexive haterade and compulsory adulation was a triumphal subtext.” (Chris Richards, The Washington Post, August 8, 2011)
  • Bad breath is a miasma of funky molecules. (Dr. Harold Katz, July 20, 2011)

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One Response

August 10, 2011

It is interesting that quite a lot of people got ill in Beijing over the last few weeks – and Beijing’s weather has been very miasmatic (?) recently. It has felt unhealthy and depressing, so there’s clearly a connection, if only in the psychological effect of it on the immune system.