30 Words Containing the Letters “sm”

By Mark Nichol

After writing a post about the suffix -ism, I explored the class of words that include the letters s and m in sequence in which the letters are not a consonant blend (as in small) or in which the s is not at the end of a prefix (as in besmirch and dismiss); with some exceptions (specified), they have in common an origin in Greek. Here are the qualifying words I found that do not use the suffix -ism or do not refer exclusively to a medical or scientific condition or phenomenon (though a couple of specialized terms that have acquired one or more figurative senses are included).

1. abysmal: very bad; abysm is a poetic alternative to abyss, from the Late Latin abyssus, meaning “bottomless pit” (which derives abyssos, meaning “bottomless pool,” although the sm ending either resulted from the superlative abyssimus or was created in imitation of Greek words)

2. basmati: a variety of rice, from Hindi, meaning “something fragrant”

3. cataclysm: a deluge, from kataklysmos, meaning “flood” or “inundation”

4. charisma: charm, from kharisma, meaning “favor” or “divine gift”; originally referred to exceptional authority or leadership

5. chasm: a deep crack, from khasma, meaning “gulf”

6. chiasmus: the inversion for rhetorical effect of two or more clauses (as in Voltaire’s quotation “The instinct of a man is to pursue everything that flies from him, and to fly from all that pursues him”), from khiasmos, meaning “crosswise or diagonal arrangement”

7. chiliasm: belief in Christ’s 1,000-year reign on Earth, ultimately from khilioi, meaning “a thousand” or referring to the number 1,000

8. chrism: a balm in oil used in church rituals, from khrisma, meaning “an anointing”

9. cosmetic: a substance used in improving one’s appearance (the plural form, cosmetics, refers to such products collectively), or, as an adjective, pertaining to personal beautification—and the words have an additional sense of “superficial” or “for the sake of appearances”—from kosmetikos, meaning “skilled in adorning or arranging”; these words and cosmetology, the term for the study of beautification, are related to cosmos (see below) in the sense of order or arrangement

10. cosmos: the universe (referred to as “the cosmos”), from kosmos, meaning “order” or “orderly arrangement”; more often seen as cosmic, the adjectival form, and cosmo- is the root word of cosmology (a word for the study of the universe) and other words, and a form of the root is also seen in macrocosm, meaning “something seen as a miniature version of something larger,” and microcosm, meaning “a large system consisting of many smaller ones”

11. desmesne: a domain or estate, or possession or use of one’s land, from a respelling in Anglo-French of the Middle English term demeine (“domain”)

12. dismal: wretched, from the Latin phrase dies mali (“evil days”)

13. enthusiasm: eagerness or zeal, from
enthousiasmos, meaning “divine inspiration”

14. gismo: gadget (variant spelling of gizmo, of unknown origin)

15. iconoclasm: criticism of conventional beliefs or standard institutions, from eikonoklastes, meaning “image breaker”; originally referred to literal destruction of images and objects considered idolatrous

16. jasmine: a plant, from Persian

17. kismet: fate, from Arabic qisma, meaning “portion” or “lot”

18. melisma: one of several specific types of musical expression, from melisma, meaning “song” or “melody”

19. mesmerize: captivate, or hold spellbound, from the name of hypnosis pioneer Anton Mesmer

20. miasma: a literal or figurative cloud or fog of an unhealthy or unpleasant or obscuring nature, from miasma, meaning “pollution”

21. orgasm: sexual excitement, from orgasmos, meaning “excitement” or “swelling” (also a verb referring to the sensation); the noun refers, by extension, to any stimulating experience (note also two slang terms modeled on orgasm: geekgasm, referring to a nerd’s exultation about, for example, a new computer program or video game, and eargasm, the result of an extremely pleasurable song or sound

22. osmosis: movement of a liquid through a solid, or, figuratively, learning or understanding something easily or smoothly; this word is an invention of New Latin and does not come from Greek

23. paroxysm: a sudden attack or a convulsion, from paroxysmos, meaning “irritation” or “exasperation”; now also used colloquially to refer to an outburst of emotion

24. phantasm: a ghost or illusion, from phantasma, meaning “image” or “phantom”; a related word is phantasmagoria, referring to an exhibition of optical effects or illusions, a constantly changing scene, or a bizarre collection

25. prism: a medium or a shape that refracts light, from prisma, meaning “something sawn”; also, figuratively, something that colors, distorts, or slants one’s perspective

26. sarcasm: a form of darkly humorous criticism in which the words stated are the opposite of the intended meaning, as in “Well, that went well!” for a disastrous incident, from sarkasmos, meaning “jest” or “taunt”

27. schism: originally referred to dissension within the Catholic Church but now also pertains to any disagreement in philosophy or policy, from skhisma, meaning “division”

28. seismic: pertaining to earthquakes, from seismos, meaning “a shaking,” “a shock,” or “an earthquake”; several words derived from the root seismo-, such as seismology (the name for the study of earthquakes) and seismograph (the word for a device that measures the motions of an earthquake) also exist (seismic also might be used to describe something of hugely significant import)

29. spasm: a sudden violent muscular contraction, ultimately from spasmos, meaning “convulsion”; also loosely employed to refer to an emotional outburst

30. talisman: a good-luck charm or something believed to have magical or miraculous powers, from telesma, meaning “consecration”

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1 Response to “30 Words Containing the Letters “sm””

  • venqax

    Number 11 is bit different because it is pronounced de-mayn, with both the Ss silent, so it would probably get overlooked for its sm combination without more than cursory thought.

    Number 27 is also interesting from an orthoepic POV. In American English, sch combos are normally pronounced like sk. Therefore, school, scheme, schedule, etc. (words like schmaltz, schlepp, and schtick are not English words in the same sense.) So the pronunciation of schism as skizm is now standard in SAE. However, the word was originally spelled without the H and pronounced accordingly as sizm. The H was added for no good reason by some of the same language terrorists who added all kinds of “silent” letters to words that had been theretofore spelled pretty much phonetically. But, that was long enough ago to have given way to a “spelling pronunciation” today. There is no support BTW for shizm, which you hear on occasion, except the “If-English-Were-Pronounced-Like-It-Was-German” defense which really doesn’t exist. Cuz it’s not. The More You Ka-now.

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