If you know the meaning of the word “mephitic,” congratulations; if you don’t know the meaning, no fair peeking into your dictionary. In truth the meaning of the word is irrelevant. But I will tell you why it is important for writers and how I came across the word.
I discovered the word in this sentence: “The air he inhaled was no longer pure, but thick and mephitic,—he was in prison.”* I did not know the word so I looked it up. It means an offensive smell; stench. The word and the sentence are quoted from the 8th chapter of “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas.
So why is the word important? It comes down to the choice a writer makes. Why not use stench, rather than the somewhat recondite “mephitic.” Would it be more clear if stench is the word or is “mephitic” the correct word to use? We can’t ask Dumas, not just because he is dead, but he was French, so he used neither word. I don’t speak French-okay I know merde-which captures both the essences of either mephitic or stench. The word mephitic was used by a translator and I assume he or she chose the word because it was closer in meaning to mephitic than stench, though I am not sure of what the difference is. Perhaps because Dumas was a great writer and the “Count of Monte Cristo,” being considered a classic, mephitic was chosen because it has that intellectual, professorial, linguistic air about it. It is a highfalutin word for the highfalutin reader, whereas stench is for the common man, the common reader, the kind that need dictionaries.
I bring this up because writers need to choose the right word for the right meaning for the right audience. In the first sentence in the above paragraph I wrote, “rather than the somewhat recondite ‘mephitic.’ ” I had used esoteric not recondite, but changed it because I believe recondite more closely approximates my intended meaning. Synonyms have shades of meanings, so choose the right shade to convey your sunny meaning.
With that last sentence it is clear I need to stop for the day.
I hope you get the drift of my intent, if not merde.
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*Dumas, Alexandre; Maplewood Books (2014-07-08). The Count of Monte Cristo (Annotated with Exclusive Bonus Features) (Kindle Location 1068). Maplewood Books. Kindle Edition.