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Smog

September 29, 2007 |  8:34 am

Greg Armento, history librarian at Cal State Long Beach, dropped me a note about early uses of "smog" in The Times. He noted that on March 29, 1914, The Times said:

"[Kokomo Times:] The esteemed Weather Bureau has sprung a
new one. It is the word 'smog,' and it means smoke and fog. The bureau
explains that very frequently there are times when this mixture is
apparent in the atmosphere, and it considers the new  word a great
little idea.

"Very well, 'smog' let it be. But why end there? Let's call a mixture of
snow and mud 'smud.' A mixture of  snow and soot 'snoot,' and a mixture
of snow and hail 'snail.' Thus we might have a weather forecast:

"Snail today, turning to snoot tonight; tomorrow smoggy with smud."

1905_0730_smog Of course Proquest is a wonderful tool for such research on language. And with just a bit of digging, we can find even earlier references to smog. A July 30, 1905, article in the Chicago Daily Tribune credits the word to Dr. Des Voeux of London's Coal Smoke Abatement Society.

According to the wire service article from the New York Herald, Des Voeux proposed the word at a public health congress held in London to discuss the city's polluted air. According the article, Des Voeux said the name of London should be changed to "Smog" because the air was so dirty.

"If the obsolete kitchen fire were abolished there would be less smog," the article says. "In fact, Des Voeux professed to be able to detect three distinct diurnal smogs--breakfast, lunch and dinner smogs." His novel solution was to use the London underground as a gigantic exhaust system to pump out pollution and bring in fresh air.

Des Voeux is sometimes given credit for coining the term, but alas, as soon as we crown him with this accomplishment, we must snatch it away, for there are even earlier usages.

A Jan. 19, 1893, article in the Los Angeles Times credits an unidentified "witty English writer":

"The fact that the death rate of London has recently almost doubled, going to over thirty in the thousand, is sufficient attestation of the evil effects of the dense, black fog which hung over that city for six consecutive days not long ago.

These visitations, which a witty English writer once designated by the name "smog," represent a condition of the atmosphere when it is saturated with moisture and charged with soot and the fumes of sulfur and carbonic acid gas from the chimneys and smokestacks of the great city. It has long been known that they are harbingers of disease.

Not long ago, a story writer of the grewsome school published a sketch in which he had all the people of London suffocated in one of these fogs, with the exception of one man who made his escape by using a Yankee device for manufacturing ozone."

As interesting as all this may be, the waxing and waning popularity of the "N-word" in The Times over the years is a far more fascinating and relevant pursuit. I hope to write more about the "N-word" in a later post, for it went in and out of fashion regularly, nearly disappearing from the paper during World War I and vanishing for several years during World War II.

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