What does ‘fetid’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: fetid….

My daughter plays soccer and ultimate (she didn’t get her athleticism from me — it comes from her dad) so I understand the word fetid, all too well. It means, well, smelly. Cleats, used jerseys and old gear bags all carry a certain pong that could also be described as fetid.

But I encountered the word recently in a totally unexpected place — a book about sleep, titled Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Here is how Walked used the term:

My good colleague Dr. Aric Prather at the University of California, San Francisco, has performed one of the most fetid sleep experiments that I am aware of.

When I encountered the word I realized I knew nothing about its etymology, although I assumed it was an old Anglo-Saxon term.

In fact, it turns out the origin of the word is Latin. It comes from fetidus, which means “stinking.” This, in turn, comes from the word fetere meaning, “to have a bad smell, stink.” And scholars think this is perhaps connected with fimus, meaning “dung,” or with fumus, “smoke.”

Use of the word apparently peaked in the early the mid 1800s — a famously smelly time, particularly in London, where 1858 came to be known as the year of the Great Stink. Hot weather exacerbated the smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent flowing down the River Thames.

One other interesting connection with the term fetid. It is part of the word asafoetida, an Indian spice with a pungent smell (it has the nickname “the stinking gum”) that, paradoxically, acts as a digestive aid for those hoping to escape gas.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on June 12/19.

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