Origin and Definition of the Word Miasma

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The word miasma is derived from Post-Classical Latin, derived from the Greek word

miainein which means to pollute. The word Miasma has two main meanings that are similar

but are different is distinct ways.

The original meaning, the first i will be discussing, at its most basic means "bad air".

A little more in depth it refers to an atmosphere, fog, or vapor that is foul smelling, unpleasant,

noxious, and or poisonous. This word accurately describes things like foul smelling swamps

or rooms full of tobacco smoke. In the past from the middle ages up until about the 1850's

this definition of miasma had a more important meaning. The Miasmatic theory of disease

was the theory that disease was spread through miasmas or foul smelling airs. This was

an easy connection for people to make because places that were filthy and bacteria ridden,

such as sewers or places with decaying matter, usually smelled quite bad. During these

times people often carried pomanders, which are small containers of perfumes and other

sweet smelling things, that they thought would ward of the foul smelling miasmas and keep

them from getting sick. This belief continued until the middle of the 1800's when the Germ

Theory of Disease, or the theory that micro-organisms cause disease, took over.

The other meaning seems to be a more psycologial one. This one refers also to an

overwhelming, encompassing influence, that is corrupting or distinctly negative. This

definition is definitely one that can be used in modern English. Perhaps this is particular

definition has come from its use as a literary metaphor, as the words both mean similar things

but the previous definition is used literally. One example of this is "To many men ... the

miasma of peace seems more suffocating than the bracing air of war." (Bartleby) In this example

the miasma is one of peace. Peace is not a negative influence per say,...
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