Build your vocabulary with Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day! Each day a Merriam-Webster editor offers insight into a fascinating new word -- explaining its meaning, current use, and little-known details about its origin.
October 15th, 2015
Episode 350 of 825 episodes
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for October 15, 2015 is: miasma \mye-AZ-muh\ noun 1 : a vaporous exhalation formerly believed to cause disease; also : a heavy vaporous emanation or atmosphere 2 : an influence or atmosphere that tends to deplete or corrupt; also : an atmosphere that obscures : fog Examples: "A local photographer graciously let me borrow a good lens-cleaning cloth, which I used repeatedly in the swirling miasma of mist and rain." Clark Fair, The Alaska Dispatch News, 13 Sept. 2015 "Economists say Greece, which had only started to recover from a grinding five-year recession, risks a relapse because of the miasma of financial uncertainty." Jack Ewing and Liz Alderman, The New York Times, 7 May 2015 Did you know? Miasma entered English from New Latin in the mid-1600s and comes ultimately from the Greek miainein, meaning "to pollute." In notes taken during a voyage to South America on the HMS Beagle in the 1830s, Charles Darwin described an illness that he believed was caused by "miasma" emanating from stagnant pools of water. For him, miasma meant an invisible emanation of "infecting substances floating in the air considered to be noxious to health," as defined in Noah Webster's 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language. Nowadays, we know germs are the source of infection, so we aren't likely to use the unscientific miasma this way. But while Darwin was out to sea, broader applications of miasma were just starting to spread. Now the term is used for something destructive or demoralizing that surrounds or permeates.