By any other name

How we talk about smell

March 1, 2011

Try to describe a smell without referring to its source. What does garlic smell like aside from garlic? What does a pineapple smell like aside from pineapple? What does morning breath smell like aside from…well, morning breath?

For garlic, you might’ve said savory. For pineapple, sweet. For morning breath, ugh, who knows – hot, acrid, pungent, sharp, complex, like regret…

The thing is, we lack a basic smell vocabulary — there is no smell equivalent of blue or red. So when we describe smells, we most often just name the source: pineapple smells like pineapple. Sometimes we co-opt a term from one of our other senses, like sweet and savory from taste or sharp and hot from touch. And if we’re feeling especially uninspired, we simply evaluate the smell’s quality or intensity or both: it’s an offensive smell, a strong smell, a faint smell, a pleasant smell, or a pungent smell (which is both offensive and strong).

Not every language suffers from this deficit of smell adjectives. The Kapsiki of Cameroon, for example, have 14 fundamental smell terms. From the book Aroma: the cultural history of smell:


  1. Medeke – the smell of various animals
  2. Verevere – the smell of civet
  3. Rhwazhake – the smell of urine
  4. ‘Urduk’duk – the smell of milk
  5. Shireshire – the smell of feces of various animals
  6. Ndrimin’ye – the smell of spoilt food
  7. Nadaleke – the smell of rotting meat or of a corpse
  8. Duf’duf – the smell of white millet beer
  9. Hes’hese – the smell of roast food
  10. Zede – the smell of edible food
  11. Kalawuve – the smell of human feces
  12. Kamerhweme – the smell of old grain
  13. Rhweredlake – the smell of fresh meat
  14. Dzafe – a fleeting smell of any kind


But awesome words like dzafe and duf’duf are conspicuously absent from European languages. This fact compelled a group of French scientists to take a look at how good (or just how bad) French speakers are at communicating the character of a smell. One participant would sniff a vial containing a purified odor and describe it. Another would have to pick that vial out of a group of six based solely on the description. The results? Of 216 trials, only 102 got it right. (It’s always a little dicey to generalize from one language to multiple languages, but French and other European languages, including English, are very similar in the smell arena.)

Fifty percent accuracy might not seem that bad, but imagine a similar experiment with vision. If you were a participant asked to describe a picture of a marlin on top of a pool table, you could say, “Hey, that’s weird, it’s a picture of a marlin on top of a pool table,” or if the image was totally abstract, you could say something like, “So there’s some wispy-looking blue thing in the top left corner, a black line towards the middle, and a red, kidney-shaped ribbon at the bottom.” Your partner would probably get the message every time.

The upshot? It’s hard to talk or write about smell, which seems like a pretty good place to start a blog about smell. It’s like a disclaimer, really: if one of my posts is terrible, it’s not my fault!

In the next post, I’ll explain why old tool boxes take on that weird, sharp fecal smell. I’m not really sure why they do, but I’ll sniff it out (for better or worse).  For now, I’ll leave you with a gem of a paragraph from the French study I mentioned:

For the subjects in our experiment, the smell of the body was a perceptual anchoring point whenever the stimulus was considered unpleasant. Isobutyl amine, which “doesn’t smell good”, [sic] was said to smell like perspiration and feet, even if for one participant this substance only had “a little foot odor”, and so were ethyl phenylacetate, said to smell like “unclean feet”, and dimethyl disulfide, which in addition was said to smell “a little” like “shit” or perspiration, along with 2-acetyl pyrazine. In the same body-related odor category, several subjects perceived certain substances (2-acetyl pyrazine, isobutyl amine, and dimethyl disulfide) as smelling like dirty socks, “you know, as if they were two days old”…“I felt like vomiting when I smelled it”, said one participant in regards to dimethyl disulfide; this description did not help the receiver…


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Khalil A. says:

A science blog about smell, I must say I wasn’t too convinced. But your intro post is brilliant and I’m definitely looking forward to reading some more!

Mark Steven Zuelke says:

Description of smell can also be said to be very specific, thanks to simile. If a chemical, found in human exudate of one type or another, smells like that particular spot where the exudite exists, then what better way than simile to describe the smell? The same criticisms of non-precise definitions would be found in descriptions of color. Fuchsia?? What the heck is that? Vermilion?? Cobalt?? If you were not an artist, you would never guess the color being described – except through simile! Smells, like colors, are absolutes.

Lee S. says:

Since the English lexicon is not closed, perhaps someone could introduce appropriate words into it. I might propose a few myself.

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DCM says:

I wonder if there might have been a more comprehensive smell vocabulary in European languages until fairly recently.
The words would likely be more easily pronounceable to speakers of Western languages.
The problem would be knowing exactly what the words referred to if there were no dictionary type documents — which there likely wouldn’t be if the words were common and widely used.
Any specialists in medieval languages out there?

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