Lost for words: Why is it so hard to describe smells?

“Smell does not allow itself to be described, but only compared through similarity with another sense.” - Immanuel Kant - Anthropology, History and Education.

Kant wrote this in the 18th century but it still stands true 300 years on. When we come to think and write about smell there are very few words we can use.  Traditionally we rely on those that we would normally associate with taste - vanillary, orangey, spicy.

Of course there are other words for smell; burnt, acrid, putrid, citrusy and woody to name a few, but these are words relating specifically to an ingredient or an action that has happened to that ingredient, rather than the smell itself.

Think about it: if you are asked to describe the taste of a banana you might go with creamy or sweet, but when asked to describe the smell of a banana most would simply say it smelt like a banana.

The fact that scent evades description is something that has puzzled scientists and linguists for centuries. Charles Darwin even considered the sense of smell as less important than the others, but one sniff of your favourite perfume will convince you otherwise. A smell can transport you to a different place, time or mood - to call it anything less than a phenomenon seems crazy.

In fact, in many ways scent is the only thing that can render you speechless - a pretty impressive feat. But why do we have such a limited vocabulary when it comes to fragrance? Is it because the complexity expressed in scent is far greater than our oral function?

Some scientists believe it’s all down to the way our brains are wired. The olfactory  (that’s a posh word for smelling) receptors are situated at the top of your nose and are directly linked to the brain. When they receive a smell they send a signal to the olfactory bulbs, where they are analysed. From there, projections are sent to different areas of the brain, including the orbitofrontal cortex - the part which may be responsible for naming and enjoying an odour.

Professor G Neil Martin, Head of Psychology at Regent's University London and author of The Neuropsychology of Smell and Taste, explains one theory on why humans may find it more difficult to put what they whiff into words: “One reason could be that odour is not processed linguistically. The direct experience of a smell, which is coupled with a circumstance like school dinners, the smell of a classroom or the scent/cologne of an old lover, can be reinstated many years later when we are exposed to that original smell. Some say this is because of the ‘direct links’ between the olfactory pathways and the amygdala - the part of the brain which may encode emotional memories.”

As for the sense of smell being less important than the others, Martin says this just simply isn’t true. Smell, along with taste, are one of the oldest senses that humans lay claim to, but is no less useful.

“The sense of smell is sometimes described as the Cinderella of the senses - she is pretty, but she's never invited to the sensory ball.

“We think we use the sense less, think it is less important. We relied on it more when we used to crawl around the ground on all-fours, sniffing the terrain for food and danger.

“When we became bipedal (started to walk on two legs), our noses rose and the importance of our sense of smell declined. Research we've conducted found that people would rather lose their sense of smell than any other. But people don't quite realise how important it is.

“The majority of food flavour is olfactory. When we have a cold, we aren't unable to taste food, we are unable to smell it. People with anosmia (sense of smell loss) find that their world loses a lot of its colour. It becomes grey, drab, monotonous and lacking in pleasure.”

Humans are often thought of as scent amateurs, especially in comparison to other animals like dogs or rodents. But, as Asifa Majid, Professor of Language, Communication and Cultural Cognition at Radboud University, explains, this is a common misconception: “Recent research has shown that humans are extremely good at distinguishing different types of smells, and might be able to distinguish as many as a trillion.

“Similarly, we know that there are cross-cultural differences in people’s abilities to describe smells, so explanations relying on the organization of the brain cannot be the cause.”

Asifa points to the Jahai people of the Malay Peninsula to illustrate her point. The community live within the rainforest and live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which means they rely more heavily on their sense of smell.

She explains: “The Jahai can describe smells as easily as colours, and much better than English speakers can describe smells. The Jahai have a set of 12 words to refer to different types of smells; just as we have for different qualities of colour: red, blue, green, yellow, purple, brown.”

In the same way you can’t use colour to describe a taste or a texture, these words are unique to smell, and cannot be used in relation to any other sense.

Asifa adds “Haʔɛ̃t is the Jahai word for the common smell between tiger, shrimp paste, sap of rubber tree, as well as rotten meat, carrion, faeces, the musk gland of deer, wild pig, burnt hair, old sweat, and lighter gas; just as red is the common color of innumerous objects for English speakers.”

Asifa and her colleagues believe the differences in our ability to articulate odour lie in the attention the Jahai people pay to scent in their day-to-day lives. Their nomadic lifestyle means they ascribe more cultural significance to smell in many different contexts, including medicine, illness and hunting. They even have taboos about mixing smells and consciously manipulate odours to avoid breaking them.

But heightened ability to recognise odours is not unique or inherent to the Jahai people. There are some people who are better at smelling than others (note: not better smelling, although there are some of those too.) Sommeliers and perfumers spend years ‘training’ their noses to detect the individual fragrance notes that make up a ‘whole scent’, so what can you do to really appreciate the multitudes of scents and fragrances around you? The answer lies, as it often does, with wine.

Asifa explains: “Wine experts are better able to describe the smells and flavours of wines than coffee experts or novices.

“It seems that practicing naming smells of wines, as is done in a typical wine tasting, or reading about them in supermarket tasting descriptions or wine magazines helps to hone this ability.

“Overall, the science suggests just taking time to smell, reflect, and discuss your smell experiences also helps develop your abilities.”

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