The Kaleidoscope of Odor.

Brooke Jarvis’s NY Times Magazine article “What Can Covid-19 Teach Us About the Mysteries of Smell?” is so fascinating I’m tempted to quote half of it just to boggle your minds (I read large chunks to my wife as she was trying to eat her breakfast), but since this is Languagehat and not Olfactionhat, I’ll only post the section directly related to language and urge you to read the whole thing if you have access to the Times. (OK, just one tidbit: a study “found that we can tell, just from sniffing a T-shirt another person has worn, whether that person’s immune system is similar to our own.[…] But here’s what’s really impressive: Our noses can also distinguish between two groups of mice that have different immune systems.”)

We may not be bad at smelling, but we are bad at putting what we smell into words. (Kant again: “Smell does not allow itself to be described, but only compared through similarity with another sense.”) With vision, we have a concrete vocabulary to lean on: red or blue, dark or bright. […] Even if we’re perceiving a color differently from the way someone else is — which is, in fact, pretty often the case — we still have a shared language that we can all lean on to discuss it. With smell, we find ourselves flailing. […]

Our descriptions of smell also lack resolution, [Joel] Mainland, the neuroscientist, notes: Though Pantone lists dozens of shades of blue, each of which can be quantified precisely in hue and saturation, we can really describe a banana scent only as banana-y. (If our experience of vision were as dissolute as smell, the philosopher Daniel Dennett has written, “the sky would go all birdish” when a bird flew by.) Yet the intensity of a smell can completely change the way we experience it. Mainland, who often asks volunteers to describe smells in his lab, told me that he has one vial that is perceived as grapefruit at low concentrations but rotten egg at high ones, and another that slides from black currant to cat pee. As Parma says: “With vision, we agree on where we stand. With odor, it’s like a kaleidoscope.”

That turns out to matter quite a lot. Being able to describe and discuss what we smell helps us smell it better. Think of sommeliers, who learn to pick out the distinct aromas of wine in large part by learning a language for them. Or consider, as the cognitive scientist and philosopher A.S. Barwich explains in her book “Smellosophy,” that beer experts have lots of descriptors for bitter flavors, which they prize, while wine drinkers, who consider bitterness a sign of a failed wine, have few.

Asifa Majid, who studies language and cognition at the University of York, has written about languages in Southeast Asia that have genuine lexicons for odors: sets of words that work much like color words, each describing something inherent in the experience of a smell rather than comparing it to other things. While Westerners trying to describe smells tend to hem and haw and squint into space, searching for descriptors, speakers of these languages are declarative and decisive. (Majid described, to The Atlantic, how her own ability to name smells looked in comparison: “Some kids were following me around and laughing. Like, ‘How can you be such a moron?’”) Huehuetla Tepehua, an Indigenous language in Mexico, likewise has at least 45 different words that express specific olfactory experiences. People who grow up in such cultures are better at detecting, discriminating and naming odors. One also doubts that they would require a scientific renaissance to tell them that smell matters.

We discussed Majid and Burenhult’s research with speakers of Jahai back in 2014 (and Kant in 2017).


  1. I remembered discussing cardinal vs. comparative colors and smells much more recently than in 2014. Definitely after a cleverly designed research paper used the fact most of us humans are deficient in some types of olfactory receptors which most of the other humans have to find out, at last, which receptors smell exactly what. That was in 2019. Sure enough, the 2014 thread turned out contain a long 2019 discussion. Hard to say if much can be added to it…

  2. This has been on my mind lately. I got into fragrance during the pandemic and one of the first things you come across in that hobby is Luca Turin’s book “Perfumes: A-Z guide”. Later I found out he himself was a subject of a fascinating book “The Emperor Of Scent”. As Turin got more recognition in the perfume world he started meeting professional perfumers and realised there was no shared vocabulary to talk about scents. He himself has a facility for describing scents. After all he couldn’t write that book otherwise. He is also a biologist and at this point he got interested in how smell works, so most of the book is about his struggle to work out a theory and get his theory accepted.

  3. Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, which everybody here has of course read because we are but humans who enjoy language, uses the smell-/color-name analogy in a very compelling way to describe the (possible) ancient perception of color.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    “the sky would go all birdish”

    Perfectly normal expression in Tlön.

  5. There’s more recent work from Majid:

    Semaq Beri and Semelai speakers—who speak closely related languages and live in the tropical rainforest of the Malay Peninsula—took part in a controlled odor- and color-naming experiment. The swidden-horticulturalist Semelai found odors much more difficult to name than colors, replicating the typical Western finding. But for the hunter-gatherer Semaq Beri odor naming was as easy as color naming, suggesting that hunter-gatherer olfactory cognition is special.

  6. The work that Y cites was the other appearance of Asifa Majid at Language Hat, Linguistic Olfaction in 2018.

    The NYT story does a very good job at summarizing Majid’s work in a single paragraph.

  7. I’ll excuse my repetition by noting that the new link has at the bottom more links to yet newer works.

  8. The work that Y cites was the other appearance of Asifa Majid at Language Hat, Linguistic Olfaction in 2018.

    Which I had forgotten, or I would have linked it in the post as well.

  9. Martin Langeveld says

    The Feb. 1 issue of The New Yorker has an article with a very similar take on the language of scent, entitled/subtitled: “How to Make Sense of Scents: Can language ever capture the mysterious world of smells?” (In print it was titled “On the Nose.”

  10. We just got that issue — I’m looking forward to it!

  11. jack morava says


    may be a little off-topic, but… it’s a plausible attempt at a phylogeny of beers, not however based on individual perceptions but on a basket of quantifiable attributes:

    `The data for each beer includes gravities (density of liquid before and after fermentation), IBU (international bitterness units), SRM (the standard reference method for color), weights (grain, yeast, wet hops, and dry hops), fermentation (time and temperature), and cost per keg.’

    I suppose one might try something similar (maybe in terms of molecular structure, etc?) for odors…

  12. two things –

    1) inspired by the recent post on the Heart Sutra and thinking of its oneness of sensory perception (no eyes, no nose etc.) – can smell ever really be separated from the sense of taste? What does the Venn diagram of taste / smell overlap look like? Are there smells which can’t be tasted and vice versa?

    2) I just read this sonnet last night:


    WHAT gift for passionate lovers shall we find?
    Not flowers nor books of verse suffice for me,
    But splinters of the odorous cedar-tree,
    And tufts of pine-buds, oozy in the wind;
    Give me young shoots of aromatic rind,
    Or samphire, redolent of sand and sea,
    For all such fragrances I deem to be
    Fit with my sharp desires to be combined.
    My heart is like a poet, whose one room,
    Scented with Latakia* faint and fine, *[aromatic Turkish tobacco]
    Dried rose leaves, and spilt attar, and old wine,
    From curtained windows gathers its warm gloom
    Round all but one sweet picture, where incline
    His thoughts and fancies mingled with perfume.

    Sir Edmund William Gosse

    What the heck is samphire?

  13. OED: “The plant Crithmum maritimum (growing on rocks by the sea), the aromatic saline fleshy leaves of which are used in pickles. Also called rock samphire.”

    1608 W. Shakespeare King Lear xx. 15 Halfe way downe Hangs one that gathers sampire, dreadfull trade.

    1832 E. Lankester Veg. Substances Food 194 Samphire..almost the only wild plant..gathered
    1863 S. Baring-Gould Iceland 176 The water has to be given a flavor by the squeezed berries of the Samphire.

  14. Anything to do with Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute?

  15. In English, the name Rock Samphire comes from its territory: steep and rocky coasts. «Samphire» comes the french «Herbe de Saint-Pierre», shortened to «Saint-Pierre» and finally «Samphire». Saint-Pierre is the patron saint of fishermen and holds a divine key to open rocks; a fitting namesake. It is also known as Sea Fennel, which refers to the similarities between the 2 plant species. The similarities are not only superficial: both belong to the same family Apiaceae.

  16. Huh, that sure sounded like folk etymology to me, but so saith AHD:

    [Alteration of Early Modern English sampiere, the plant C. maritimum, from French (herbe de) Saint Pierre, (herb of) Saint Peter, after Saint Pierre, Saint Peter, a patron saint of fisherman (the plant being so called because it grows on rocks near the sea, the name perhaps also being influenced by French pierre, rock).]

  17. Kate Bunting says

    There’s also marsh samphire I find it delicious, though as I don’t live near the coast I rarely have the chance to eat it.

  18. Trond Engen says

    Salicornia dreaming.

    Samphire is Sanktpeterskjerm in Norwegian. It’s been discovered in this century on a handful of scattered spots along the southern coast. The plant is seen as an indicator of cimate change, since it’s very specific about low temperatures,

  19. David Marjanović says

    can smell ever really be separated from the sense of taste?

    Of course. The receptors behind the nasal cavity that detect gases are different from the receptors in the mouth that detect more easily water-soluble stuff.

    Most of what we generally think is taste is actually smell that gets from the oral into the nasal cavity from behind; but that doesn’t mean there’s no difference.

  20. Just read the Rachel Syme piece in the New Yorker and enjoyed the word osmocosm (“the totality of scents in the world around us”).

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