• Paul Anthony Jones

Mephitic

(adj.) foul-smelling



Something that smells awful can be described as mephitic—while a mephitic weasel is a skunk.



Or at least it was back in the early nineteenth century, when that name was first recorded in an 1818 Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature.


At the root of both these words is mephitis, a Latin word for an expulsion of gas or vapour, that also came to be used among the Samnite Italic culture of Ancient Roman Italy as the name of a goddess of the foul emanations and miasmas from the earth. The origin of her name any earlier than the Samnite’s first-century BC culture is, however, something of a mystery.


From Latin, mephitis (which essentially rhymes with colitis) and its adjective mephitic both fell into use in English in the early 1600s. They are not, incidentally, thought to be related to Mephistopheles, the foul demon to which Faust sold his soul in the ancient German fable. Despite some subtle crossover of meaning here, Mephistopheles’ name is another etymological mystery thought to have roots in a Hebrew word, mephitz, meaning ‘destroyer’.

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