• mephitic •
Pronunciation: me-fi-dik • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Foul-smelling, stinking, noisome, obnoxious to the nose. 2. Noxious, toxic, poisonous (mostly of noxious gases that also stink).
Notes: Today's Good Word is the adjective of mephitis [mi-fai-dis], which originally referred to sulfuric emanations from volcanic cracks in the Earth. Fittingly, the zoological name of the common striped skunk is mephitis mephitis. Later the meaning of the adjective migrated to "poisonous, toxic", by no means a long stroll at that.
In Play: Mephitis is not simply a stench but one suggestive of toxicity: "It was difficult to believe that the mephitic slop Al Falfa was feeding his pigs was only recently in front of his guests at the dining room table." We wouldn't want to use it in speaking of undecayed esculents except as hyperbole: "The dinner of leftovers was progressing jovially until Sue Flay removed the lid from a tureen of a mephitic stew she claimed was only a day old."
Word History: No one knows the origin of this word beyond Latin mephitis "stench from the bowels of the Earth", a word the Romans probably borrowed from the Etruscans. It doesn't show up in any other Indo-European languages or even in other Latin words. The one possible lexical connection that has been suggested is in the name of Faust's evil antagonist, Mephistopheles. No one really knows where this name came from, either. It apparently originated around the 15th century and has been spelled many ways, including Mephistophiles. However, several other explanations of this word have been offered, including a combination of the Hebrew words mephitz "destroyer" and tophel "liar". We are all just guessing, though. (We are not guessing, however, at the gratitude we owe our friend Kathleen of Norway for suggesting today's Good Word.)