August 31, 2018

Words of the Month - The Sweet Smell of Odor Words

        Here’s something to consider: English famously has a huge vocabulary, extraordinarily rich in expressing fine shades and distinctions of meaning.  English has as many basic color words as almost any other language in the world, plus hundreds of additional words to describe the colors we see.  (Read all about it here.)  We have dozens of words to describe fine nuances of tastes, textures, sounds… But strangely, English has very few words that describe smells.  We have smelly, fragrant, stinking, aromatic, and malodorous, but those are telling us little more than degree of stinkiness and basic pleasantness vs unpleasantness.  Of words describing the quality or particular type of smell… not so much.
        Pungent is particularly penetrating; musky is like musk; sulfurous is like sulfur; but mostly we have to fall back on the same words we use for taste (fruity, spicy, sweet, acrid) and on simply naming the thing that the smell smells like (like cinnamon, like vanilla, like disinfectant, like wet dog, like new-mown grass).  This isn’t to say that we can’t describe or talk about smells.  Of course we find ways to express what we need to express, and of course perfumers have a huge vocabulary with which they describe aromas.  Nevertheless, there seems to be a qualitative difference in the sorts of words we use: metaphoric uses drawn from words for other senses, such as “bright with notes of cherry.”  Why?
        It may well be that in all sorts of languages humans find it easier to describe what they see than what they smell.  After all, our sense of sight is more dominant for us than our sense of smell.  As Kenneth Grahame notes in The Wind in the Willows, “We others who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal’s inter-communications with his surroundings… and have only the word 'smell’, for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling.”  But there are languages whose speakers do better than English.  Jessica Love cites a study about the language Jahai, spoken by a group of hunter-gatherers in Malaysia.  Speakers of Jahai were able to describe scents just as well - and just as consistently - as they were able to describe colors.  Speakers of English did better describing colors, but far worse on scents.  Why?
        We don’t really have an answer.  Different languages carve up the world into different words, and focus their linguistic attention on different areas (consider the “Eskimo words for snow” stereotype), so on the one hand, this is simply within the range of human linguistic variation.  On the other hand, surely this is an area ripe for English innovation.  We can start with snorky, brambish, and brunky, and move on from there.  We’ve got a lot of work to do!

[Picture: Calvin and Hobbes, comic by Bill Watterson, Feb. 13, 1995 (Image from GoComics).]
Why So Few English Words for Odors?, article by Jessica Love, 2014.

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