Western (contemporary) people, find it incredibly difficult to describe scents. There seems to be a dramatic mismatch between smell and language and a lack of proper vocabulary. This problem is often attributed to a physiological condition. But is our brain to blame for this ‘malfunction’?
Probably not. There are cultures – mostly hunter-gatherers – that have absolutely no trouble describing scents at all. Take the Jahai for example, studied at length by psycho-linguist Asifa Majid. They have unique and abstract words to classify groups of odours such as:
Ltpɨt = fruit, perfume, soap, bear cat
PlƐɁŋ= blood, fresh meat, fresh fish (1)
(this bearcat smells Ltpɨt)
These words describe abstract characteristics or common denominators. But how did the Jahai come up with these words? Apparently context determines wether we need words or not in order to survive (this was another of Majid’s conclusions concerning the rich smell vocabulary of the Jahai).
So how did our western ancestors deal with this problem? Did they need to be able to vocalise olfactory experiences in order to survive? Apparently they did. There were once many more labels, because they were necessary in knowledge production. In 18th century Paris for example, there was a need to describe scents in order to monitor and protect public health, because certain odours were thought to spread diseases or to be a manifestation of illnesses (2). It is really hard to study this vocabulary though, because where to look when words and their meaning have disappeared? Yet this is the mission of many scent historians:
“…early modern English included a much larger vocabulary of sensory description than most scholars assume, a vocabulary that is now mostly obsolete. […] Scent descriptions included marechal (cherry), naphe (orange), thymiana (incense) and suffiments (general terms for medicinal scents)” (3)
This conclusion by Dugan is fundamental: it means that besides looking at different cultures, we can and should also look into history, and that historians are able to contribute to the debate on olfactory language.
The following is a chronologic list with a selection of historical classification systems (a rather staccato and far from complete one, but one that will hopefully inspire you):
1.In antiquity Plato was convinced smells could only be described as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ being of a ‘halfstate’ in between air and water. This rudimentary type of classification is now referred to as ‘hedonic’.
2. The system by Aristotle was a bit more elaborate, combining taste and smell experiences and even tactile impressions on the tongue:
The classic philosopher also claimed that only human beings were capable of smelling ‘aestheticically’ and enjoying the perfumes of flowers. Obviously he was wrong, as many animals sniff flowers without the purpose of eating them.
3. The first more complex classification system was created by the famous botanist Linnee (Linnaeus) in 1752. He based his scent categories on the healing properties of plants, which he connected to the pleasantness of their odours from good (aromaticos) to nauseating (nouseosos). The fourth group ‘alliaceos’ (garlic and onion/ sulphuric) was neutral to him. The fifth group (hircine = goaty), which was quite unpleasant contained ‘orchis’, a flower with a strong urinal tone, but it did have some erogenous qualities according to the scientist. Number 6 consisted of buxus, cannabis and opium and 7 of helleborus (indicating plants like the Christmas rose) and dracontium (for example ‘skunk cabbage’). Other than what many people think, Linnaeus didn’t just describe plant odours. The animalic odours such as musk, civet and ambergris were listed under the first category ‘aromaticos’.
Linnaeus, Odores Medicamentorum
4. The Dutch scientist Zwaardemaker complemented this system in 1895, adding words like ‘empyreumatic’ which means ‘smoky or burnt’, referring to tobacco, coffee, chocolate and vanilla:
5. But all these scales were still classifications along an axis of good and bad (hedonic) and quite one-dimensional.
In 1911 therefore Hans Henning invented the first 3-D system. Every possible scent supposedly exists somewhere in this prism:
6. The second multi-dimensional system was invented in 1927 by Crocker and Henderson, which was based on scales:
In this system ‘Vanillin’ would be 7122. Caprylic meaning ‘goaty’. So 7 for fragrant, 1 for acid, etc.
(A goat smells ‘caprylic’ (Crocker – Henderson) or ‘hircinos’ (Linnee and Zwaardemaker))
7. One of the more recent classification systems was suggested by Jellinek in 1992. He combined emotions, tastes and scents. So besides classifying odorants, he looked at their effects:
Caprylic or goaty would fit at the bottom: urinous, alkaline and cheesy. Interestingly it is also ‘erogenous’. Linnaeus likewise considered ‘hircinos’ the most erogenous scent. If you smell something sexy you might surprise your lover by using the phrase:
“my darling, there’s something so caprylic, alkaline and hircine about you tonight…”
8. Last but not least I would like to mention the invented language Nasalo by the renowned artist and linguist Sissel Tolaas. Her language is based on several existing vocabulaires worldwide. Not only do words from this language describe moods and atmospheres evoked by scents, but also combinations of very characteristic scents such as ‘wet dog’ and ‘puqsa’ which signifies ‘mold and mushrooms’. Her words are meant to take away our prejudices inherent to certain sources of smell. Who said a sweaty wet dog can’t smell divine? After all ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are culturally determined classifications.
Connecting signifier and signified
But all these words and examples will only be educational and useful once we actual start smelling things, connecting signifier (word) and signified (smells). This would be a good starting point: bringing scents into museums, academia and class rooms.
At the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where I work as a PhD-candidate, we already started. In Dutch there is only one abstract word for smells, which is ‘muf’ (a little ‘puqsa’ in Jahai). The word was embodied by (pretty serious) professors at the history department in our ‘muf’ bicycle cellar to emphasize and celebrate its importance (signifier and signified are merged). Words only become meaningful when we can link them to real-life experiences. Let’s start expanding our smell vocabularies as of today!
- Majid, Asifa, Burenhult, Niclas (2014), “Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language”, in Cognition, pp. 266 -270)
- Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant, 1982
- Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume, 2011
by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian