What is a ‘miasma’?

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

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: miasma…

Inspired by a mostly positive review on NPR, I recently read the novel The Devil and Webster, by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Described by some as a “thriller,” I found it more of a satire on university life, focusing on the extreme political correctness of today’s students. In the case of this story, a popular university professor is denied tenure because — unbeknownst to the students — he has committed plagiarism. And of course the university cannot communicate this news because the tenure process must be protected by confidentiality. Predictable chaos ensues.

While I found the author’s style a little choppy, I appreciated her vocabulary and highlighted a half dozen interesting words I could have used as my word-of-the-week. The one I selected, miasma, was not because I didn’t know it but because I like the sound of it. And, I’d never before had reason to explore its etymology. Here is how Korelitz used it:

It was almost as if each of the students at the Stump encampment had come with some personal grievance, and in the airing of these grievances there emerged a general, generational, miasma of discontent.

As you likely know, a miasma refers to a highly unpleasant or unhealthy smell or an oppressive or unpleasant atmosphere that surrounds or emanates from something. Interestingly, for thousands of years society believed that diseases such as cholera, chlamydia, or the Black Death were caused by a miasma a noxious form of “bad air.”

Scientists and physicians eventually gave up on the theory after 1880, replacing it with the germ theory of disease. (And if you want to read a fascinating book on the history of cholera in England, be sure to check out Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson.) 

The etymology of the word is Greek, from miasma meaning “stain, pollution, defilement, taint of guilt,” from stem of miainein, meaning “to pollute.”