• miasma •
Pronunciation: mai-æz-mê • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. Noxious or just obnoxious fumes or vapor, often associated with putrid swamps or decaying matter, once thought to cause disease. 2. An unpleasant, depressive mood or atmosphere arising from a situation.
Notes: For reasons mentioned in the Word History below, this word is often extended by the suffix -at when other words are derived from it. The adjective is miasmatic, producing miasmatically as the adverb. Miasmata may be used as a plural form for this word alongside miasmas. Things that affect us miasmatically are said to miasmatize us, again with the -at extension.
In Play: Miasmas began as unpleasant vapors arising from decaying or other smelly matter: "The picnic in Worley's back yard would have been a pleasant affair were it not for the miasma emanating from his septic tank." Today, though, it is used far more frequently in its figurative sense: "The miasma lingering over Washington today discourages optimism."
Word History: Today's Good Word is Greek miasma "stain, pollution" taken straight from Greek, only transliterated (converted to English letter by letter). The Greek noun was derived from miainein "to pollute" via the suffix -(s)ma, a suffix closely associated with another suffix -at, which is why "of pollution" in Greek is miasmatos and why the plural of English miasma is miasmata. (Compare miasma : miasmata with stigma : stigmata and schema : schemata.) The second suffix also appears in adjectives borrowed from Greek words, such as grammatical (grammar), dramatic (drama) and schematic (schema). The root underlying it all is Proto-Indo-European mei-/mai- "to stain, defile", which was suffixed with an -l in English, giving us Old English mal, which today is mole "spot on the skin". (Let's all thank Rob Towart, whose life we hope has no miasma, for suggesting today's Good Word.)