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Pea soup, or a pea souper, also known as a black fog or killer fog, is a very thick and often yellowish, greenish, or blackish smog, caused by air pollution that contains soot particulates and the poisonous gas sulfur dioxide. These very thick smogs occur in cities and are derived from the smoke given off by the burning of soft coal for home heating and in industrial processes. Smog of this intensity is often lethal to vulnerable people such as the elderly, the very young and those with respiratory problems.
Such fogs were prevalent in UK cities, especially London where the smoke from millions of chimneys combined with the mists and fogs of the Thames valley. The result was commonly known as a London particular or London fog, which then, in a reversal of the idiom, became the name for a thick pea and ham soup.
An 1871 New York Times article refers to "London, particularly, where the population are periodically submerged in a fog of the consistency of pea soup..." The fogs caused large numbers of deaths from respiratory problems.
The worst recorded instance was the Great Smog of 1952, when 4,000 additional deaths were reported in the city over a couple of days, leading to the passage of the Clean Air Act 1956 which banned the use of coal for domestic fires in urban areas. The overall death toll from that incident is now believed to be around 12,000.
Contrary to popular impression, the Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories contain only a handful of references to London fogs, and the phrase "pea-soup" is not used. A Study in Scarlet (1887) mentions that "a dun-coloured veil hung over the house-tops." The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans (1912) describes "a dense yellow fog" that has settled down over London, and later notes, "a greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops on the windowpane".
In Chapter 3 of Charles Dickens' Bleak House, when Esther arrives in London, she asks of the person meeting her, "whether there was a great fire anywhere? For the streets were so full of dense brown smoke that scarcely anything was to be seen. 'O, dear no, miss,' he said. 'This is a London particular.' I had never heard of such a thing. 'A fog, miss,' said the young gentleman."
In Chapter XXXIV of Thomas Love Peacock's Melincourt (1817), the Reverend Mr. Portpipe tells his visitors that he has "good ale and a few bottles of London Particular." A footnote by David Garnett, editor of the 1948 edition, explains that this is "a Madeira wine imported for the London market and hence, from its colour, a London fog."
In the phrase "pea-soup fog," the implied comparison may have been to yellow pea soup: "...the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted" (Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess, 1892); "The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes," (T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 1917); "London had been reeking in a green-yellow fog" (Winston Churchill, A Traveller in War-Time, 1918); "the brown fog of a winter dawn" (T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922); "a faint yellow fog" (Stella Benson, This is the End). Inez Haynes Irwin, writing in The Californiacs (1921), praises what was then the superior quality of California fog, saying it is "Not distilled from pea soup like the London fogs; moist air-gauzes rather, pearl-touched and glimmering."
In the animated television Christmas feature Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), the characters Rudolph, Hermey and Yukon Cornelius are travelling through a thick fog when the following exchange takes place: Yukon Cornelius: "This fog's as thick as peanut butter!" Hermey: "You mean pea soup." Yukon Cornelius: "You eat what you like, and I'll eat what I like!"
Also, in the book The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, the second chapter is entitled "A London Particular" and mentions the thick, dense fog of London, which Arthur Kipps witnesses on his journey to work at his solicitors' office.