OED: Atmosphere (HUM425)

atmosphere, n.

Pronunciation:  /ˈætməsfɪə(r)/

Forms:  Also 16 -sphære, -sphear.

Etymology:  < modern Latin atmosphæra, < Greek ἀτμός vapour + σϕαῖρα ball, sphere.


a. The spheroidal gaseous envelope surrounding any of the heavenly bodies.

1638   Bp. J. Wilkins Discov. World in Moone x. 138   There is an Atmo-sphæra, or an orbe of grosse vaporous aire, immediately encompassing the body of the Moone.

1693   R. Bentley Boyle Lect. vii. 13   The Sun and Planets and their Atmospheres.

1881   Stokes in Nature No. 625. 597   In the solar atmosphere there is a cooling from above.

b. esp. The mass of aeriform fluid surrounding the earth; the whole body of terrestrial air.The name was invented for the ring or orb of vapour or ‘vaporous air’ supposed to be exhaled from the body of a planet, and so to be part of it, which the air itself was not considered to be; it was extended to the portion of surrounding air occupied by this, or supposed to be in any way ‘within the sphere of the activity’ of the planet (Phillips 1696); and finally, with the progress of science, to the supposed limited aeriform environment of the earth or other planetary or stellar body. (It is curious that the first mention of an atmosphere is in connection with the Moon, now believed to have none.)

1677   R. Plot Nat. Hist. Oxford-shire 4   That subtile Body that immediately incompasses the Earth, and is filled with all manner of exhalations, and from thence commonly known by the name of the Atmosphere.

1728   E. Chambers Cycl. (at cited word),   Among the more accurate Writers, the Atmosphere is restrain’d to that Part of the Air next the Earth, which receives Vapours and Exhalations; and is terminated by the Refraction of the Sun’s Light.

1867   E. B. Denison Astron. without Math. 56   The earth’s atmosphere decreases so rapidly in density, that half its mass is within 3½ miles above the sea; and at 80 miles high there can be practically no atmosphere.

2. transf. A gaseous envelope surrounding any substance.

1863   H. Watts Dict. Chem. I. 431   Thus we speak of the atmosphere of oxygen which spongy platinum attracts to its surface, or of the reduction of a metal in an atmosphere of hydrogen.

1876   P. G. Tait Rec. Adv. in Physical Sci. xiii. 321,   I shall simply put this atmosphere of coal gas..outside the bulb.


†a. A supposed outer envelope of effective influence surrounding various bodies; esp. electrical atmosphere, that surrounding electrified bodies. Obs.

1668   Philos. Trans. (Royal Soc.) 3 851   Notes and Trials about the Atmospheres of Consistent Bodies.

1728   E. Chambers Cycl. (at cited word),   Atmosphere of solid, or consistent Bodies, is a kind of Sphere form’d by the Effluvia, or minute Corpuscles emitted from them.

1750   B. Franklin Exper. & Observ. Electr. (1751) 53   The additional quantity [of electrical fluid] does not enter, but forms an electrical atmosphere.

b. magnetic atmosphere, the sphere within which the attractive force of the magnet acts.


a. fig. Surrounding mental or moral element, environment. Also, prevailing psychological climate; pervading tone or mood; characteristic mental or moral environment; fascinating or beguiling associations or effects.

1797–1803   J. Foster Jrnl. in Life & Corr. J. Foster (1846) I. 163   An extensive atmosphere of consciousness.

1817   S. T. Coleridge Biographia Literaria I. iv. 84   The original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents.

1828   Scott Fair Maid of Perth ii, in Chron. Canongate 2nd Ser. I. 64   He lives in a perfect atmosphere of strife, blood, and quarrels.

1854   W. C. Roscoe in Prospective Rev. 10 398   [Shakespeare] leaves his meaning to rest in great measure on the atmosphere that hangs about his language, rather than on its dictionary meaning and grammatical construction.

1859   J. S. Mill On Liberty 116   Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.

1869   M. Arnold in Cornhill Mag. Nov. 600   Being in love changes for the time a man’s spiritual atmosphere.

1884   ‘V. Lee’ Euphorion I. 27   Their intellectual atmosphere was as clear as our own.

1884   J. Ruskin Art of Eng. 222   The old water-colour men were wont to obtain their effects of atmosphere by, etc.

a1902   S. Butler Way of All Flesh (1903) vi. 27   Genial mental atmosphere.

1922   G. Santayana Solil. in England ix. 30   What governs the Englishman is his inner atmosphere, the weather in his soul.

1923   H. G. Baynes tr. C. G. Jung Psychol. Types v. 230   The religion of the last two thousand years..has, thereby, created an atmosphere which remains wholly uninfluenced by any intellectual disavowal.

1923   P. G. Wodehouse Inimitable Jeeves xii. 130,   I never know, when I’m telling a story, whether to cut the thing down to plain facts or whether to..shove in a lot of atmosphere.

1934   L. Sieveking Stuff of Radio i. ix. 90   Together the music of the orchestra, the aeroplane and sea sounds, and the dialogue of the three men, created genuine ‘atmosphere’, evoked emotion.

1948   J. R. Sutherland Pref. 18th Cent. Poetry i. 1   Hobbes and Locke..were subjecting the intellectual atmosphere to a sort of air-conditioning process.

b. Characteristic environment; surroundings or setting of a character appropriate or peculiar to the thing in question.

1886   Harper’s Mag. Nov. 831/2   The constituent parts of literary society..are obliged to house themselves transiently in the most incongruous spots, with little, if any, ‘atmosphere’ about them.

1916   ‘B. M. Bower’ Phantom Herd i. 1   Such wanted several rehearsals of ‘atmosphere’ scenes before turning the camera on them.

c. spec. Applied to the background sounds that evoke a particular mood, impression, setting, etc., in a broadcast programme, etc. Also attrib.

1941   B.B.C. Gloss. Broadcasting Terms 4   Atmosphere, sounds forming the acoustic background incidental to an event such as a race meeting, procession, etc. Hence atmosphere microphone, microphone specially placed to pick up such sounds.

1961   K. Reisz Technique Film Editing (ed. 9) ii. 186   The sound editor can do little more than choose a piece of accompanying atmosphere music from his library.

1962   A. Nisbett Technique Sound Studio ii. 42   A record of courtroom ‘atmosphere’ completed the picture by providing an occasional cough or shuffling noise.

1962   A. Nisbett Technique Sound Studio viii. 141   At this point, in order to maintain the fullest continuity, we can do a crossfade which keeps the atmosphere running throughout the pause.

5. The air in any particular place, esp. as affected in its condition by heat, cold, purifying or contaminating influences, etc.; = air n.1 4.

1767   J. Fordyce Serm. Young Women I. vi. 239   The suffocating atmosphere of..a small apartment.

1858   N. Hawthorne Fr. & Ital. Jrnls. I. 126   No amount of blaze would raise the atmosphere of the room ten degrees.

6. A pressure of 15 lbs. on the square inch, which is that exerted by the atmosphere on the earth’s surface.

1830   C. Lyell Princ. Geol. I. 396   Congealed under the pressure of many hundred, or many thousand atmospheres.

1881   J. Lubbock in Nature No. 618. 411   Hydrogen was liquefied by Pictet under a pressure of 650 atmospheres.


atmosphereful   n. (cf. bucketful n.).

1879   W. Black Macleod of Dare xxiii,   A whole atmosphereful of pheasants.

atmosphereless adj. without an atmosphere.

1858   J. H. Bennet Nutrition iii. 75   Our cold satellite, the atmosphereless moon.

This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1885).