How many ways to say ‘This stinks’?

When tested, most people can name only about 50 percent of even familiar aromas such as coffee, cinnamon, and garlic. But we do know when something stinks. For bad smells, we have a fairly rich, if nonspecific, vocabulary.

Alex Brandon/AP
A SDT Waste and Debris Services trash can sits on a clean Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008.

Last week we talked about how English has very few “abstract smell words,” words that pick out underlying similarities among diverse smells. English-speakers, along with most people who do not live as hunter-gatherers, are generally quite bad at identifying odors. When tested, most people can name only about 50 percent of even familiar aromas such as coffee, cinnamon, and garlic. But we do know when something stinks. For bad smells, we have a fairly rich, if nonspecific, vocabulary.

Many words indicate that something offends our noses without characterizing the smell. Stench indicates that you find it disagreeable, but it could be dirty socks, rotting vegetables, or leaking gas. Fetid likewise describes “an offensive smell” without adding much detail about how it smells; in the same way, mephitic – usually used for gases or air – means “foul-smelling” or “offensive to the smell,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In the Renaissance through the 18th century, noisome (from the Old French word for “annoy”) could apply to anything from smoke to mud to cellar air to excrement.

Meat going bad can be putrid or rank, implying advanced decomposition. A rancid smell is “stale and sour,” like old butter, oil, or fish, spoiled but just beginning to decay. Nidor and its adjective, nidorous, indicate the smell of burning meat or fat, as produced by tallow candles or “eructation,” as the great 18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson explains in his dictionary – a nidorosity is an especially sulfuric burp. Today few of us regularly encounter strong smells of these kinds. In the not-so-distant past, however, without garbage collection, refrigeration, or sewage systems, there was much more occasion for such words.

English words that describe good smells are few and far between. An aroma is generally pleasant or at least inoffensive, and a fragrant perfume or spice gives off sweet smells. Redolent was originally one of these rare beasts; flowers, meadows, and wine all had “redolent” – meaning “sweet-smelling, fragrant” – odors during the 15th to 18th centuries. Its sense has since shifted, and it is sometimes now used as yet another nonspecific descriptor of unpleasant smells, as in a “redolent stench.” 

But in today’s usage the word retains a positive connotation. When we say something is “redolent of” or “redolent with” something else, we mean that it is suggestive or reminiscent of it. The word can be used literally (“the stew was redolent of peppers and garlic”) or more figuratively (“the air was redolent of spring,” or “the buildings were redolent of antiquity”). Redolent highlights the strong connection between sense and recollection.

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