What’s In a Word? The Etymology of Smog

I am by no means an etymologist, but I do find word origins fascinating. Take the word smog, for example.

Smog itself — a combination of smoke and fog — has afflicted humankind for thousands of years, but the word describing it seems to have begun in London in 1905. According to an article in Journal of the American Medical Association that year, a health expert, possibly Dr. H.A. des Voeux, treasurer of London”s Coal Smoke Abatement Society, used the term “to indicate a frequent London condition, the black fog, which is not unknown in other large cities and which has been the cause of a great deal of bad language in the past. The word thus coined is a contraction of smoke and fog — ‘smog’ — and its introduction was received with applause as being eminently expressive and appropriate. It is not exactly a pretty word, but it fits very well the thing it represents, and it has only to become known to be popular.”

The word smog is a portmanteau, a word that blends the sound of two different words. Lewis Carroll, famed author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandand Through the Looking-Glass, coined the word portmanteau to describe the kinds of words he invented for his delicious poem, “Jabberwocky.”

Aside from rare use among scientists, the word smog virtually never appears in print until the 1940s, when its use spikes, almost certainly as a result of the Donora tragedy in 1948. Interestingly there was no such spike in the 1930s, when 60 people were killed in a smog event in the Meuse Valley in Belgium. There is no separate word for smog in Dutch, nor in French or German, the three most prominent languages used in Belgium. The greatest likelihood of smog not peaking in the 1930s is because the word hadn’t been in use enough even in scientific literature until that time. For instance, the word fails to appear in a 1937 article in The Journal of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology, called “The Fog Disaster in the Meuse Valley, 1930: A Fluorine Intoxication.” The article uses instead “fog,” “smoke,” and “thick mist.”

The word begins to register, but barely so, in the late 1930s, climbs a bit in the early 1940s, and really begins to soar from 1948 through the 1960s. (See chart, below.)

smogngram

The word climbed steadily in use until 1966, when suddenly its use skyrocketed. During six days in late November that year, Manhattan was flooded with smog, leading to the death of an average 24 people per day. Like the Donora smog, the Manhattan smog was caused by pollutants trapped near earth’s surface by an extended temperature inversion.

The word smog kept rising until its peak in 1972, two years after Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, the most comprehensive anti-pollution measure to that date. Since then use of the word has trailed off, but smog itself remains a common and important topic of conversation, even — and perhaps especially — today.

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Temperature Inversions and Deadly Smog

Donora, Pennsylvania.

Meuse Valley, Belgium.

London, England.

Environmentalists will recognize those names as sites of deadly smog events in the mid-1900s. In Donora, in October 1948, 27 people died and hundreds became sick. In the Meuse Valley incident, back in 1930, 60 people died and thousands developed severe breathing problems. In London, just four years after Donora, a staggering 4,074 people died and tens of thousands of people became seriously ill.

Common to all three tragedies were two key elements. First, large factories in each area had been spewing enormous amounts of pollutants into the air, the most deadly being sulfur dioxide. And second, Mother Nature came calling in the form of something called a temperature inversion.

On most days the air is coolest higher in the atmosphere and warmest nearest the ground. Air isn’t a terribly good conductor of heat energy, so most of the sun’s energy warms Earth’s surface. Sometimes, though, air in higher elevations becomes warmer than air at the surface. That layer of warm air then traps the cooler air below, putting a kind of lid on the area. Temperature inversions happen with some regularity throughout the world and are particularly common in valleys. When moisture clings to the air during an inversion, you’ll see fog. Typically fog “burns off” during the morning, dissipating when surface air warms.

450-temperature-inversion

Sometimes, though, fog lingers. Combine that with pollutants also being held down by the layer of warmer air above and you’ve got the makings of a tragedy. People begin breathing air with increasingly higher concentrations of sulfur dioxide, fluorine, and other toxins from factory fumes. When sulfur dioxide combines with water vapor, the result is sulfur trioxide, a dangerous toxin and the primary component of what we know today as acid rain. That chemical change also begins robbing the air of oxygen and increasing the potential that humans, farm animals, and pets will suffocate and die. The longer the inversion lasts, the more deadly the effects.

Donora’s inversion lasted six days before rain finally broke it up. In London and the Meuse Valley, the inversion lasted five days. In all cases the death toll mounted quickly. One undertaker in Donora, Rudolph Schwerha, talked not long after the event with journalist Berton Roueché of The New Yorker about his return home after an arduous 2-mile journey in dense, black fog to pick up a body.

My wife was standing at the door. Before she spoke, I knew what she would say. I thought, Oh, my God — another! I knew it by her face. And after that came another. Then another. There seemed to be no end. By 10 o’clock in the morning I had nine bodies waiting here. Then I heard that DeRienzo and Lawson, the other morticians, each had one. Eleven people dead! My driver and I kept looking at each other. What was happening? We didn’t know. I thought probably the fog was the reason. It had the smell of poison. But we didn’t know.

We know now, of course, and today our air is significantly cleaner than it was then. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but it is much improved from the last century. Let’s hope the air becomes even cleaner this century.

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