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Postby Dr. Goodword » Sun Jun 02, 2013 12:17 am

• 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.)
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Re: Mephitic

Postby DavidLJ » Sun Jun 02, 2013 9:14 am

I'm a little surprised that "sulphurous" is not listed as, if not an element of the main definitions then an alternate definition of this word.

My surprise aside, it seems to me that the sulphur is in fact an essential element of the meaning. (Etymologically the word is said to come from "earth smells,” and here the machine is again imposing its vile sense of punctuation on me by insistently sticking a space after that comma and before the quote, just as it used to remove my paragraph breaks -- thank you for fixing that but that explanation seems to me bogus: the word is obviously related to Mephistopheles, the Devil, who is as related to sulphur as he is to earth.)

A non-sulphurous foul smell, e.g. a mouldy refrigerator, would specifically not be mephitic.

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Re: Mephitic

Postby MTC » Sun Jun 02, 2013 9:37 am

Dr. G. notes, "No one knows the origin of this word beyond Latin mephitis 'stench from the bowels of the Earth'...." "Fault Flatulence ," perhaps?

According to, "The simile that associates the bowels with the dark visceral centre of things is of long standing. The first known use of it is in Peter Morwyng's translation of The treasure of Evonymus, 1559:

"Sum put to it wormes or bowels of the earth."

Back to mephitic, I had always assumed Mephistopheles also derived from mephitis, but my intuitions proved incorrect. "According to the speculation of eminent Göthe scholar K.J. Schröer (1886) it (Mephistopheles) is a compound of Hebrew mephitz "destroyer" + tophel "liar" (short for tophel sheqer, literally "falsehood plasterer;" cf. Job xiii:4)." See entry at

Not really the most sweet-smelling subject matter, is it? But then, "they never promised us a rose garden."
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Re: Mephitic

Postby Philip Hudson » Mon Jun 03, 2013 12:38 am

MTC: one missing letter makes a lot of difference. I think you meant and NOT If you tread the latter path my warning is "Here be Internet dragons."

As for mephitic, I haven't yet come to an understanding of the questions involved and I have had a busy day. But tomorrow is another day. Perhaps I will puzzle some then.
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Re: Mephitic

Postby LukeJavan8 » Mon Jun 03, 2013 10:56 pm

I thought sulphurous as well. Like Yellowstone.
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Re: Mephitic

Postby gailr » Tue Jun 04, 2013 12:35 am

This WotD brings to mind asafoetida. It's been used for exorcisms (probably keeps away *everyone*!) and is, less exotically, an ingredient in curries.
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Re: Mephitic

Postby MTC » Tue Jun 04, 2013 5:51 am

Thanks for asafetida, gailr. Dropping the "o" in the alternate spelling makes the meaning clear. Also in the category of "Terrible Tubers" is the mandrake root: "According to the legend, when the root is dug up it screams and kills all who hear it." (
Not mephitic, but Mephistophelean!
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