Definition: Highly offensive to one’s sense of smell
Origin: 17th century, from the Latin word ‘mephitis’, meaning ‘poisonous vapour’.
Why this word?
Chrissy and I undertook the Great American Road Trip a few years back – a solid month on the road driving from Las Vegas to New York City (Seán Carabini’s book, American Road, is based on this trip). On that trip, we encountered more than our fair share of cattle farms – but they were different from those we have back home in Ireland in one particularly striking way: the smell. In Ireland, if driving through the countryside, you may have to roll up your windows if passing a cattle farm. The smell is, well, let’s just call it ‘hearty’. However, in America, the farms that we passed had a different smell. In addition to ‘hearty’, it also smelled sick. We recall the smell causing a reaction that was almost emotional – rather than the simple nostril concern that an Irish farm gives – the American smell encountered caused us to actually feel sorry for the cattle. What were they being fed that caused a smell like that?
How and when to use this word in a sentence?
During the course of her research, Chrissy also came across the word ‘noisome’, meaning more or less the same – but not as limited as mephitic. Noisome can also refer to a smell or a reaction that goes so deep that it causes a moral reaction. So why chose mephitic over noisome? Simple. Anyone can, at any time, use the word mephitic without fear of being misunderstood. For example: “The smell of the cattle was so bad … it was mephitic”. It is a word that can be indulged in – the consonants allowing it to be launched forward for emphasis. With noisome … not so much. It is not a word that can be really used in anger or to evoke a particular emotion.
Thus, you’ll probably get away with mephitic as its’ sounds lend it to a host of situations. Noisome, however, is to be reserved for use only at dinner parties that fund-raise for conservative political aims and meetings of the Alliance of professorial Dickey-Bow Enthusiasts.