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Remembrance of all things smelly

It is surprisingly hard for English-speakers to describe the odors that occasion strong emotions. English possesses almost no abstract smell words that pick out links or themes among unrelated aromas. 

Richard Vogel/AP
A cup of coffee at a cafe in Los Angeles on March 29, 2018.

I came home one day recently and, for reasons I don’t quite understand, my living room smelled like my grandmother’s house. Suddenly I felt as if I were 12 years old, happy and relaxed, sitting in her kitchen. I can remember what her house looked like, though it was sold 20 years ago – her three-level plant stand, the plates lining the walls, the window over her sink – but these visual memories don’t have the power that smell does. The funny thing is, I can’t even begin to describe the odor that was so distinctively hers. The best I can do is this: “It smelled like my grandmother’s house.”

It’s a common experience, and a common linguistic problem. In cultures worldwide, people have powerful olfactory memories. This odor-memory link is also called “the Proust phenomenon,” after Marcel Proust’s famous description of the feelings evoked by a madeleine dipped in tea in “Remembrance of Things Past.”

Olfactory memories seem to be more closely bound up with emotions than are visual or auditory ones. Not all these memories are pleasant, of course, and smells can also trigger feelings of pain.

It is surprisingly hard for English-speakers to describe the odors that occasion such strong emotions, however. English possesses almost no abstract smell words that pick out links or themes among unrelated aromas. 

We have plenty of these in the visual realm. “Yellow,” for example, identifies a characteristic that bananas, lemons, some cars, some flowers, old book pages, and the sun all share.  

But for odors, we don’t have many more than the vague “musty” (smells old and stale) and “musky” (smells perfumey). We usually have no choice but to say that one thing smells like another – like a banana, like garlic, like diesel fuel. 

A few languages, though, do have a rich odor vocabulary. Linguist Asifa Majid has found that the Jahai, the Semaq Beri, and the Maniq, hunter-gatherer groups in Malaysia and Thailand, employ a wide range of abstract smell words and can identify aromas as easily as we can colors. The Jahai have a word, for example, that describes “the seemingly dissimilar smell of petrol, smoke, bat poop, root of wild ginger and wood of wild mango.”

Last year my cat got sprayed by a skunk, and the vet told me to wash its face with coffee to cover the stink. Until then, I had never realized that coffee, which I find delicious, smells remarkably like skunk spray, which I do not.  

Science has identified the chemicals that both share. They are called mercaptans. But in colloquial English, we have no word for the underlying note that connects these two odors. If the Jahai drank coffee and encountered skunks, I bet they would.

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