Linking Nose and Brain : Language of Scents

“It’s so hard to describe scents in words!” This is one of the most common phrases I’ve encountered in my profession. It’s only rivaled by “smell is the most primitive of all senses.” Perfume marketers are particularly prone to wringing their hands over this issue. Our supposed inability to describe scents is blamed for perfume not being taken seriously and not being recognized as art. And well, the reasoning goes, since the sense of smell is so primitive, no wonder we can’t describe odors. Our brains simply don’t have the capacity for it.

oranges and blotters

As someone who interacts daily with people who can describe scents perfectly–and this includes not just professional perfumers, but also many of you who visit these pages, I don’t believe in our inherent lack of scent language. If we can’t describe scents, it’s because we don’t often have an opportunity to do so.

Both the idea that scents can’t be described and the primitive nature of the sense of smell would have seemed bizarre to Indians in the first millennium CE. In their society, aromas were a part of daily life, from religious ceremonies to seduction, and even, politics. Blending scents and using fragrant oils was not simply common practice, it was an essential element of culture. The art of perfumery was something performed by anyone wishing to be seen as educated and genteel.

Creating personal aromas and being aware of scents also meant that the discourse about odors has developed in tandem. Harvard scholar James McHugh offers many examples of fragrance descriptions in his book, Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture. Like English, Sanksrit lacks scent-specific adjectives, so ancient writers had to resort to talking about scents as similar to something else in their world, but even so, the descriptions are very precise. “All of a sudden, he is fearful with a smell that is sour, acidic, or of a he-goat, bones or crab, angry, corruptible, miserable, ungrateful,” writes one elephant scholar in sixteenth-century Kerala (p.85).

Just because English speakers have difficulties talking about scents, it doesn’t mean that the problem is universal. Maniq and Jahai, languages spoken in southern Thailand and on the Malay peninsula, respectively, have an incredibly rich scent-specific vocabulary that describe odors in abstract ways, much like English speakers describe colors.

“For instance, hog badger (Arctonyx collaris) is described as smelling caŋə (a good aroma often associated with various foodstuffs) during the dry season,” write Asifa Majid and Ewelina Wnuk, psycholinguists at Radboud University in the Netherlands, in Cognition magazine. Or consider “itpet,” Jahai for the smell of different flowers and ripe fruit, including durian, soap, oud and a local jungle cat that smells of popcorn. It will come as no surprise that in various studies Jahai and Maniq people outperformed English speakers in their abilities to describe scents consistently and accurately (Majid and Wnuk, 2014).

But we need not pick up Jahai to rewire our brain and describe scents well.  My Indian friends and family have often surprised me with excellent scent descriptions, especially pertaining to spices and flowers. Both sets of scents play a big role in Indian cuisine and religious traditions, forming a nuanced and complex olfactory palate from childhood. In another example, until the past couple of decades, blending scents at home was common in the Arab peninsula countries, and likewise, Middle Eastern scent descriptions are sophisticated and precise. Finally, with perfumery as part of France’s heritage, French offers a rich vocabulary of aromatic descriptors.

Meanwhile, we need to develop our own vocabulary and use our noses more. As a study at Centre de Recherche en Neurosciences de Lyon demonstrates, “the regions of the brain associated with olfaction are more developed in professional perfumers than in the general population” and that with practice, it’s possible to reverse the age-related grey matter reduction that affects the olfactory regions among the general population. The best part is that creating a language of perfume is in itself a special sensory delight.

Extra reading on the subject: How To Improve Your Sense of Smell and join us in developing your scent vocabulary in our bi-monthly Scent Diaries.

Of course, perfumers and fragrance professionals have coined their own language to talk about scents, and if you want to become fluent in it, please see Speaking Perfume : A-Z of Common Fragrance Descriptions.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin



  • Annette: Victoria, this is so interesting! I wish I knew more words to describe scents. But your post just pinpoints the fact that vocabulary is linked to a given culture or tradition. I remember how surprised I was at learning during my linguistic course at university that societies in very cold regions of our planet have literally dozens of words to describe different types of snow.

    And on a more personal note, my best friend has no sense of smell, no memory of ever being able to smell anything. Sometimes she listens to me descibing fragrances and then she says: “It must be fascinating, this world of smells,” but how DO you descibe smells to someone for whom it is something totally abstract? And then I think to myself: “How lucky I am to know a pine wood smells like.”

    Well, just random thoughts… December 12, 2014 at 8:54am Reply

    • Victoria: In Brussels, especially in the local dialect, there are numerous words for describing rain! 🙂

      It is only in so far as people use their sense of smell. And if you look at professional perfumers and their ability to converse easily with each other about scents, it’s also the same matter. We may not have the precise scent vocabulary like Jahai do, but we can still describe what we are smelling. I’m really musing out loud, of course. One doesn’t need to be a professional to develop their own way of talking about perfume. The more we pay attention to something, the more we talk about it, the easier it becomes.

      But the problem of describing scents isn’t really so unique. For instance, how would you describe color to someone who can’t see? December 12, 2014 at 1:05pm Reply

      • Annette: Still thinking and pondering! The topic is so fascinating to me.
        I agree that the more you pay attention to various smells, the more skilled you become at describing them. And the more easily you notice them. But I want to focus on words themselves. Let me illustrate it with an example. My parents love gardening and sometimes I ask them to give me names of different kinds of plants or fruit. And very often I shudder in disgust bacause… how could anybody in their right mind have called one variety of beautiful, succulent pears “Conference” (in translation)?! For goodness sake!

        Like Limegreen below, I also love language. And I want words, not just metaphors, however sophisticated, to describe ideas, concepts or simply beauty.

        Oh, I know I will be still musing on this topic. I may even have a heated discussion with one Juliet Capulet on “What’s in a name?” 🙂 December 12, 2014 at 2:36pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’m not sure if the issue is really with words or with our ability to apply them. To follow from my color example above, we use words like olive, burgundy and ruby to describe colors. If you dig deeper, you discover that even the color words we take for granted as abstract aren’t so abstract at all. Red, for instance, and the Sanskrit word rudhira, share the same root. In Sanskrit, it means blood.

          I use the color example only because colors are often contrasted with scents, but really, the challenge of describing them is not so different. December 12, 2014 at 3:02pm Reply

    • solanace: The French photographer Sophie Calle has a book, ‘M’as tu vue’, with pictures taken by her based on how some people born blind would describe beauty. Amazing work, the woman is brilliant. December 12, 2014 at 1:17pm Reply

  • Ellen: Just requested “Sandalwood and Carrion” from my library. Do you have other book recommendations on the role of scents in different cultures? December 12, 2014 at 9:23am Reply

    • Victoria: I’d recommend Alain Corbin’s book, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. If you check his bibliography, you’ll find many other recommendations, but his book was really seminal. December 12, 2014 at 1:10pm Reply

    • MontrealGirl: Ellen, you may be interested in the book I mention in my comment further down by ‘MontrealGirl’. December 13, 2014 at 7:28am Reply

  • Lindsay: I love articles like this one! I actually got into perfume because I so enjoy reading about it. The linguistic and diction choices that writers make when describing smells (and also tastes) fascinate me. I hadn’t thought about it from a cross-cultural perspective before December 12, 2014 at 9:25am Reply

    • Victoria: The study on Maniq and Jahai was really fascinating. It made a point that because smell matters to these people much more than it does to us in our cultures, they developed a great capacity not just talking about it, but also being able to identify and classify scents that are new to them. December 12, 2014 at 1:11pm Reply

  • Penny Williams: I love this post, thank you!

    Even for people who already have a well developed odour language, they still feel their way with other people when trying to communicate it. So much of odour is context based too, so the same smell in different contexts can feel different and be described differently.

    A simple example, like the ingredient cis-3-hexenol, for me is ‘the smell of green’ – it’s found in grass and leaves. But it’s also found in bananas, apples, pears, flowers and more besides. Simple ingredients can be found in many places and some simple ingredients can be mutil-faceted also. It’s no wonder we have different ways of describing odours.

    I echo your advice, smell often and importantly – discuss with others, it’s great as an aid to odour memory and also to expand our experience. December 12, 2014 at 9:29am Reply

    • Victoria: True, we all perceived scents slightly differently, and even the professionals may not smell some odors as strongly as others. I’ve participated in the studies of various raw materials, and it was interesting to see how different perfumers perceived the common materials. For instance, everyone without fail would classify materials in the same categories (smelling them blindly), but the strength perception was all over the map, especially for musks, ambers, woods.

      And I can’t agree with you more. Discussing scents with others is really the best way not just remember aromas, but also to learn their nuances. Plus, it’s fun, especially if you’re in a good company. 🙂 December 12, 2014 at 1:17pm Reply

      • Penny Williams: You’re right about the strength perception 🙂 I’m a perfumer, 25 years in the industry, and have also observed strength variability. I also noticed it varies with experience, things can appear stronger upon multiple exposures.

        Turns out the Olfactory Receptors become more abundant on intermittent exposure – makes so much sense!

        This OR flexibility must also play a role in cultural differences in perception, which will in turn may influence communication. December 13, 2014 at 5:08am Reply

        • Victoria: The studies I read point out that simply more exposure changes the part of the brain that responds to the olfactive signals, but I’d be curious to read what studies show that the olfactory receptors themselves become more abundant. The only studies I could find deal with moths. December 13, 2014 at 6:57am Reply

  • Michaela: I absolutely love this series! Very interesting how smell is described in various cultures.
    The link ‘speaking perfume A-Z…’ gives an error, ‘page not found’. December 12, 2014 at 9:32am Reply

  • Gentiana: This is so very interesting and educative ! December 12, 2014 at 9:44am Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked it! Those studies are really fascinating. December 12, 2014 at 2:03pm Reply

  • Chilloften: I can be lost in reading reviews/descriptions of fragrances for hours on end, because…I cannot put them into words myself. And then to be able to describe that love of reading about fragrance to others is difficult as well.
    Interesting article. December 12, 2014 at 9:46am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s one of those things you get better at the more you try. So, talking, reading, exploring anything perfume related (and of course, smelling!) really makes a difference in how you can not only describe scents but even perceive them. December 12, 2014 at 2:05pm Reply

  • limegreen: Thank you, Victoria, for such an intellectually stimulating article! This is so fascinating, especially as I love language and the intricacies of interpretation and translation. Some ideas and concepts are nearly impossible to render from one language to another because the cultural contexts differs. I never thought about it from a sensory perspective (the snow example mentioned by Annette is one of the few I have heard about, and I never thought beyond the mechanics of vocabulary).

    My husband has a lot of allergies so he does not smell very well and I often feel when talking about fragrances and this and that perfume that it’s the equivalent of trying to render color in a language understandable to a somewhat visually impaired person. If he were not an English speaker, but a speaker of Jahai (!), it would not matter as much that he cannot smell all that well. December 12, 2014 at 10:18am Reply

    • Victoria: I have a couple of translator friends, and we’ve often talked about this. Like the issue of “lost in translation.” Some things are just difficult to render properly. For instance, translating poetry seems like such a challenge. December 12, 2014 at 2:11pm Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Interesting topic. Surely some of us can speak of odours in a vivid way and make accurate comparisons. Only look at Hamamelis and Anka, and of course Victoria. And I remember with pleasure Suzanna. But it strikes me that the language most of the time is about comparisons; with colours, or other smells, or music (Luca Turin often refers to music) or actresses.
    I noticed this even in Victoria’s exemples from other cultures, maybe with the exeption of ”itpet”.
    It’s like talking about music, also difficult. Could it be that odour or music are too abstract to be properly expressed in words?
    On the other hand, philosophers can speak about abstractions in their jargon. A special jargon can be developped. Look at the Latin language, not very apt for philosophy. Until Cicero developped a Latin philosophical jargon. December 12, 2014 at 10:37am Reply

    • solanace: Good points! I heartly agree with you about the level of abstraction rendering perfume closer to ‘applied mathematics’, such as music or astronomy – and, of course the most abstract of all, metaphysics! December 12, 2014 at 1:23pm Reply

      • Victoria: And with so much writing about perfume over the past decade, who knows if the field won’t be developed further! December 12, 2014 at 2:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: Your example of philosophers is really quite interesting.
      I was also thinking about languages, in which there are no words for specific colors. For instance, in Japanese, both green and blue have traditionally been described by the same word, ao. In modern Japanese, green is sometimes distinguished by a different word, midori, or depending on what it is describing, an English word is used, gurinu. By contrast, in some languages like Greek, the words for various shades of blue and green are numerous. And what’s interesting about these Greek color words is that they are also about comparisons. Like certain shades of green can be described as olive, cabbage or cypress-colored. So, maybe, it’s less to do with abstractness than the role of certain concepts in our societies. I don’t know for sure, of course, just throwing out ideas out there. 🙂 December 12, 2014 at 2:19pm Reply

    • Cornelia Blimber: I should have mentioned our other talented writers, Andy, Eliza and Patricia (alphabetic order). Sorry! December 12, 2014 at 3:10pm Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you!
        And of course, Lauren! December 12, 2014 at 3:50pm Reply

  • minette: hi. i wonder if it’s not that we lack the vocabulary, but rather we don’t – generally speaking – pay attention to scents in our culture. the people i work and live around are always surprised when i mention what i’m smelling on the air. they simply don’t notice it. but once i mention it, they become aware of it, and can describe it themselves. it’s like the ability to notice and describe scent is latent and unused.

    i take a lot of pictures of clouds – even have a page devoted to the changing sky on facebook – and you would be surprised how few people around me actually look up. they only look up when they see me looking up and taking a picture. i’ve had friends thank me for encouraging them to look up at the sky – they love the beauty they see there. but why weren’t they looking up in the first place?

    i believe if you start looking for and appreciating the beauty in the world – whether it’s cloud play or an engaging aroma or an interesting noise – you will find it. but you have to make that decision to wake up and look for the roses before you can stop to smell them. and describe them. December 12, 2014 at 11:41am Reply

    • Victoria: I do agree with you! I also think that there is nothing wrong with not having specific, scent-only descriptors. After all, in case of colors, not every color name is perfectly abstract and used only for colors (orange, rose, olive, mustard, etc.)

      Either way, paying attention to scents and trying to describe them (even in some imprecise, our own personal way) is already interesting. As that Lyon study I linked to demonstrated, in people who talk about scents on regular basis–they studied professional perfumers–the regions of the brain associated with olfaction are more developed. December 12, 2014 at 2:24pm Reply

  • Filomena813: I think that scent is our most neglected sense with some people. Yet scent can evoke memories from our childhoods…not just perfumes but everyday odors that we encounter–both good and bad. December 12, 2014 at 12:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s always amazing to read surveys in which people say lightly that the sense they could most easily part with is the sense of smell. But reading personal accounts of people suffering from permanent scent loss, it becomes apparent how much they suffer without it. Because it’s not just smells, it’s tastes, it’s about our personal relationships too, etc. December 12, 2014 at 2:26pm Reply

      • ElenavL: Oh yes, I could not agree more. I spent about two years without my sense of smell and it was like a grey veil was put over my life. I’ve learn to tolerate that I could not smell perfume and the food taste bland and it did not matter anymore which wine was in my glass, but there were more subtle and yet more important comforts that I felt almost disoriented without. For instance, even a hug from your loved one feel so different when the air between you is sterile, it feels cold and distant. December 13, 2014 at 3:55pm Reply

        • ElenavL: I miss the ability to edit comments; it is so embarrassing staring at your own errors and typos. December 13, 2014 at 4:05pm Reply

          • Victoria: Gosh, don’t worry about it, otherwise, I’d have to apologize for all of the typos I leave responding to comments. 🙂 It’s hard to avoid them. December 14, 2014 at 2:36pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’m so glad to hear that it was just temporary! For someone who loves scents, the mere idea is just frightening. Your comment on the more subtle difficulties is also so telling. We rely on our sense of smell much more than we realize. December 14, 2014 at 2:34pm Reply

      • anastasia: Really??!! thats the first sense they would give up scent? How would you cook? Eat? Feel? I dunno to me scent is a big part of my life. My grandparents had a garden where they’d grow vegetable,s fruit trees and had a glorious rose bush in their front yard. I’m always touching and smelling everything…from the musty smell of old books or the citrusy way parsley smells after you’ve rubbed the leaves. I even love the burnt rubber and fuel smell of underground garages. oh and don’t get me started on the smell of crushed cumin…no scent is something I could not live without! Sorry for such a long post but for me scent and taste are like breathing. December 14, 2014 at 11:30pm Reply

        • Victoria: It reminded me of a story I read about painter Paul Delvaux, who in his 90s started losing his sight. He complained that he can’t work, but “to enjoy a glass of wine one doesn’t need to see, so yes, I still love life.” December 15, 2014 at 11:52am Reply

  • solanace: This is such a beautiful and interesting article, thank you Victoria! A side effect of reading BdJ is that I’ve been giving herbs, fruit, spices and flowers (not to mention my wrist) for my kids to smell almost every day, since they were very little. The boy is five now, and he talks about smells all the time. The other day he said he likes cilantro because it ‘smells like the entire forest.’ The girl was picking the cilantro leaves to eat them before the rest of the meal that same day, so I feel there is something right going on. 🙂 Well, the down side is that the girl is very eager to put her little hands on my samples, while the boy now complains about the smell of johnson’s soap, ‘terrible, terrible, please wash this off me, mommy’, the lavender shampoo, which ‘smells nothing like the plant’, and so on… What have I done! December 12, 2014 at 1:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: Your kids are incredible! I just love all of these stories. 🙂 Are they also adventurous eaters? December 12, 2014 at 2:31pm Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: What a talented little boy!
        I can remember you asking some question about perfume when you were pregnant, and I said Johnson babysoap goes well with Shalimar! That was when your little girl was on her way to this world, I guess. How old is she now? December 12, 2014 at 3:19pm Reply

        • solanace: She is almost two, thank you for asking, Cornelia. Every day she’ll ask me for ‘pefume’, and I’ll put a little dab of cologne or some sheer rose in the top of her hair. A very calm, smiley girl! December 12, 2014 at 4:30pm Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: I think she and her brother will have interesting conversations when they are grewing up together! December 12, 2014 at 4:35pm Reply

            • solanace: I hope so! They already are very tender to each other. December 12, 2014 at 4:51pm Reply

      • solanace: Thank’s! They are totally adventurous. Tomorrow we are going to a Korean restaurant because the two eat well there. They also love Japanese food, curries, all kinds of seafood, vegetables… you name it. I once took the boy to the doctor because he was yellow, and I thought he might have a liver problem. It turned out he was yellow because of an overload of beets and carrots, his favorite snacks! And I don’t want to brag, but here between us perfumistas, they also love the arts! The boy has his own itinerary at the MASP museum, looking for the bad guys from Goya and for cows and boats in the landscapes, and they are both theater fiends! December 12, 2014 at 4:50pm Reply

        • Victoria: Wow! They’re really quite a pair. And like Cornelia, I can just imagine what conversations they might have together when they are older. What’s the age difference between them? December 13, 2014 at 7:01am Reply

          • solanace: Three years. December 13, 2014 at 7:49am Reply

            • Victoria: Oh, that’s a very nice difference. Enough that they can share interests in common! December 13, 2014 at 7:54am Reply

              • solanace: I wish they were closer in age, but didn’t have the guts, lol. However, they are both eager to run together and make a huge mess, as I hoped they would, so I’d say this is a good difference. See, for a working mom, to have two small babies at once might be hard. At least my boy was not attempting to eat the bugs from the floor anymore when his sister started trying. Have a great Sunday, Victoria! December 13, 2014 at 6:12pm Reply

                • Victoria: That difference is already really brave! And sounds like they are going to be each other’s best friends. 🙂 December 15, 2014 at 11:53am Reply

  • Karen: Another fascinating and thought provoking article, thank you Victoria! Besides just increasing my awareness of things around me, reading about perfumes and fragrance has also improved my memory of things from the past.

    The other day there was an article in the paper about a company that carries many products from the 60’s/70’s (newly made). Just seeing a shampoo I must have used as a teen, Lemon Up, immediately triggered the memory of the fragrance. As I share my love of perfumes with my daughter and friends, I work on conveying scents in a meaningful way – although I’ve definitely got tons to learn! December 12, 2014 at 3:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: Your story of Lemon Up made me think of Clairol’s Herbal Essences, a shampoo that I used when I first moved to the States. It smelled like no shampoo I tried, and to this day, I can recall the scent perfectly. Did Lemon Up smell citrusy? December 12, 2014 at 4:09pm Reply

      • Karen: Yes, very lemony! I am now wondering if there was a break through in fragrance development during the 70’s as many things began being lemon-scented (furniture polish, dish soap). Or why certain fragrances gain popularity at a certain time. Yardley lavender gained popularity in the U.S. market about the time of Zefferflli’s Romeo and Juliet.

        And Herbal Essences was so popular! Captured the desire for alternative-type natural products, but made by a large company. (and I am really tempted to order some of the lemon shampoo!) December 12, 2014 at 4:28pm Reply

        • Victoria: I think that it was just very popular for a time being, and people associated lemony scents with everything clean. And then the market got oversaturated, and now the Americans associate lemon with cleaning products! Such a twist.

          Herbal Essences was a huge deal too, because it was one of the first fruit scented shampoos on the market. It totally changed how we perceive scents of our cleaning and beauty products. When you see yet another green apple scented shampoo or soap, that’s all due to Herbal Essences. Really quite incredible! December 13, 2014 at 7:00am Reply

  • Mary K: This is a very interesting article and I enjoyed reading about how other cultures can have very specific words for scents that we would have trouble describing. And I couldn’t help but notice the statement about the jungle cat that smells of popcorn. Someone must have gotten close enough to notice this.

    I just returned from doing a little holiday shopping and while out I did notice lots of chocolate, tea and nut smells, along with the usual pine and gingerbread. December 12, 2014 at 5:30pm Reply

    • Victoria: I noticed it too and wondered the same thing. The name for this animal is binturong, and it seems like it belongs to the same large weasel family as civet. The wikipedia article also notes their intelligence and popcorn like smell. 🙂

      Everything around us smells like fir tree balsam as the Christmas markets are being set up. December 13, 2014 at 7:04am Reply

  • George: I liked the article. I would add my two pennies worth to what you discuss, but I think that would add to a series of articles in itself- there is so much to say on the whole language/perfume subject. December 12, 2014 at 5:44pm Reply

    • Annette: George, please do! I, for one, would be so interested in reading your ideas. December 12, 2014 at 7:28pm Reply

    • Victoria: 🙂 December 13, 2014 at 7:05am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: Come on, George! December 13, 2014 at 8:09am Reply

  • MontrealGirl: Fascinating topic, thank you Victoria. It made me think that I would not be surprised if some day we find out that there are some physical variations amongst us that might account for some of the variation, just like there are super tasters who have a bitter taste receptor gene that the rest of us don’t have and far more fungiform papillae on their tongues (I’m so jealous!).

    However, culture must also play a large part and this one book I just finished reading last month really gave some marvellous historical and cross-cultural examples. The book is called “Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell” by Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony Synnott. I got the Kindle version from Amazon. One of the loveliest cultural examples it gave was that on the Andaman Islands, off the coast of Burma, the local tribe’s calendar is scent-based. They name different parts of the year after the fragrant flowers that are in bloom at that time. Their year is a cycle of odours. Isn’t that the most marvellous idea? I don’t think theirs would be relevant to us so how about inventing one with your readers? I vote for pine being the smell of December.

    One of the argument the authors’ make is that during the ‘Enlightenment’ period where science and reason took centre stage the focus shifted to using the ‘facts’ our eyes see to discover the world around us and no longer trust the vagueness of smell. And when I think back to my science classes, even chemistry, I recall that our observations were visually based, not scent based. Now that I think about it, the term en-LIGHT-enment is quite appropriate as light is experienced only with the eyes. So, we need an en-SCENT-enment period which I think is what your blog is achieving as it is the modern equivalent of the Enlightenment salons, especially those that included women. You are our ‘salonnière’ 🙂 December 12, 2014 at 5:57pm Reply

    • Annette: The book sounds fascinating! I must read it.
      The tribe you mention is so different from our Western civilisation, more reason-based. Not that I bemoan it, being a science lover, but it just shows how culture, and with it language, takes different paths according to specific perceptions, but also climate, beliefs etc. of a particular society.

      The salon Victoria has created here is truly en-SCENT-ening as well as en-LIGHT-ening. Here’s to our hostess 🙂 December 12, 2014 at 7:52pm Reply

      • Victoria: I often talk about it with my husband, who comes from the scientific background. Science is perceived as more reason based, but it’s not necessarily so. Scientific inquiries can be shaped by motivation based on anything but reason. Plus, culture is a such a malleable thing and can change within a very short period of time. I bet that if we examine English language closely enough, we will discover many more scent-specific elements. December 13, 2014 at 7:41am Reply

    • Victoria: I have started on Classen’s book, but I never finished it for some reason, and your comment makes me realize that I need to revisit it. I remember that she had lots of interesting examples of scent words and scent rituals from other cultures.

      Your remark about Enlightenment made much sense to me. And if this blog is anything like a salon, then everyone’s interesting comments and observations is what makes it so. Thank you for that! 🙂 December 13, 2014 at 7:33am Reply

  • Brenda: My my…”lemon up” …that really sparked a fragrance memory in me! As a young girl I remember sleepovers with girls from school being mostly about experimenting with soaps, lotions, make-up and…always…washing our hair! A shampoo that had a strong scent….different from what our moms regularly purchased….was always appreciated. Lemon-up….what a nostalgic memory! I do hope young girls these days are creating similar memories…without even knowing it! December 12, 2014 at 8:58pm Reply

    • angeldiva: Hi Brenda,
      I have the same memories! Even scented stationary was thrilling. It was like a few moments of diversion from the news on the TV of the Vietnam war. The war was so very terrible, but never have I seen a decade with more of a fervor for pop culture scents.
      “Suddenly…. Heavenscent!!!!!”
      You can find so many of these TV commercials on Youtube, I just LOVE seeing those!

      P. December 12, 2014 at 9:56pm Reply

    • Victoria: I bet they do! So many favorite products today have distinctive scents. And perfumes have become more affordable to teenagers, too. December 13, 2014 at 7:43am Reply

  • Tourmaline: Hi Victoria,

    What interesting timing there was with your article about the language of scents! I had a quick read of it very late last night before I went to bed, and then this morning when I woke up and switched on Radio National to listen for a while as I lazed, there was a segment on this very topic. They had on a language professor named Dan Jurafsky from Stanford University, and he spoke about how strange it was that English has a word for wonderful flavours (delicious) and a word for wonderful images (beautiful), but no word for wonderful fragrances.

    He gave an example of a Chinese language that has many words to describe fragrance – Cantonese. Apparently Cantonese has a word for “smells good”, and a plethora of words for negative smells, including ones for spoiled rice, rancid oil or nuts, rancid grain, the ammonia smell of urine, and the “bloody fishy” smell. He has just written a book called “The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu”.

    I was particularly heartened to read in your article that, “with practice, it’s possible to reverse the age-related grey matter reduction that affects the olfactory regions”. That is all the more reason to indulge our love of perfume! December 12, 2014 at 9:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: Interesting that you mention Dan Jurafsky, because just last night I was reading a review of his book in The Economist. It’s the same one you mention, in which he analyzed words used in the restaurant menus and restaurant reviews. The results are fascinating and sometimes amusing, especially about negative reviews, in which he reads some words that people usually use after a minor trauma. And it was interesting that a negative review was often framed as a communal, rather than an individual experience. “We waited for our food for ages.” “Our entrees were awful.”

      I’m certain that if more languages are examples closely, these kinds of scent-specific words can be found in abundance. December 13, 2014 at 7:51am Reply

    • Karen: This sounds fascinating! Another book on the to-read list! The book-selling companies will wonder who on earth mentioned it when orders start flying in! December 13, 2014 at 7:53am Reply

        • Tourmaline: Hi Victoria,

          That’s two coincidences! Clearly the publishers are doing a publicity blitz for this book at the moment.

          Thanks so much for the link. The review was intriguing; it shows that language can communicate so much more than we might think, especially to those who have studied the deeper meanings. I think that many people would cotton on to the possibility that a restaurant that “doth protest too much” about the freshness of their food might have food that is less than fresh, but clearly there are many other more sophisticated language signs. The use of trauma descriptors and collective language to express a disappointing dining experience is indeed interesting, and I was amused to read about absolving oneself of guilt by blaming the additive-as-cocaine cupcake! December 15, 2014 at 6:10am Reply

          • Victoria: Oh, that comment also made me smile. It was as if someone was trying to say, “the cupcake made me eat it.” 🙂 December 15, 2014 at 11:54am Reply

      • Tourmaline: Hi Karen,

        Yes, the book does indeed sound fascinating. I bet the author and publishers would be surprised to learn how many perfume lovers might buy it! December 15, 2014 at 6:12am Reply

        • Karen: A niche market they may have never considered for marketing purposes! December 15, 2014 at 7:33am Reply

  • angeldiva: Hi,
    Loving this conversation! “Lemon Up With The Juice Of ONE WHOLE LEMON Per Bottle.” This is how the ad ran. It smelled wonderful. 19060-70’s marketing to teenage America was all about appealing to our sense of smell. When I was engaged to my eastern European former fiancé, we found a bottle of Herbal Essences Shampoo on a high, dusty top shelf in Spain circa 1989. He loved it so much – he used it to wash his whole body!
    I recently started a teeth whitening experiment by mixing baking soda with lemon ( you can also use lime) to use as toothpaste. The scent is phosphorus to me.
    This year has been a year of emotional devastation- like getting hit with lightening bolts. So, I found a wonderful diversion in BdJ. I really focused my imagination this year on my ability to isolate certain notes in perfumes. I am so very impressed with myself…lol
    I can now tell if a perfume contains notes of: petitgrain, amber,peach or juniper. Well, it’s a start, and I’m proud of my start. When I went to the event at Scentbar and spoke with Kilian Hennessey I was confident about the knowledge I have attained just by reading Bdj.
    I love the sentiment in a song by Kenny Rodgers ‘you gotta’ STOP – and smell the roses…’
    On a sadder (but fascinating note) my dear late mother lost her sense of smell after having her first ( she had two) brain tumor removed when I was nine.
    It’s a terrible loss. I don’t think she thought about it much- she just powered through, she had five children. But, as her daughter – it was very painful and frustrating for me.
    I treasure my sense of smell like I do my hearing. Sometimes I just review all of my senses, and my mystic ability- silently thanking God for each of them.
    Peace December 12, 2014 at 9:44pm Reply

    • Karen: Many loving thoughts coming to you. A note of caution about your tooth powder, it may negatively impact your tooth enamel. Try using hydrogen peroxide (yes, it will foam up) with the baking soda. December 13, 2014 at 7:51am Reply

      • angeldiva: Karen,
        Thank-you, I did not know that. I’ll try the peroxide or get Zoom bleached.
        P. December 13, 2014 at 7:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: You should be very proud! Plus, what a great way to exercise your memory and perceptive skills. I’m happy to have helped a little on this quest of yours.

      Your mother must have been a very strong woman. December 13, 2014 at 7:53am Reply

      • angeldiva: Thank-you Victoria! Yes, my late mother was a Sherman Tank in heals wearing Shocking by Sciapparelli! An absolutely formidable Taurus the bull.
        She really put together Norman Rockwell looking Christmases around this house.
        P. December 13, 2014 at 7:15pm Reply

      • angeldiva: Hi Victoria,
        Actually, when I revealed my abilities as a mystic, I wasn’t referring to my nose!!! LOL I wish!
        No, I wouldn’t presume to identify notes by this gift of Discernment.
        This ability comes from The Creator. I have learned to be grateful for it, along with my other senses. But, would never claim a technical ability that others have studied and been educated in.
        I’m just happy that I can identify my, “Starter Notes” -petitgrain, amber, peach and juniper! lol
        And Merry Christmas December 13, 2014 at 7:26pm Reply

        • angeldiva: Actually… I can SNIFF OUT A BARGAIN !!!

          ****Like 1oz. Gucci Envy for $44. US at

          Peace December 13, 2014 at 7:35pm Reply

          • Victoria: Aha! That’s quite a bargain. December 15, 2014 at 11:54am Reply

  • Amer: Sometimes people commend me on having a keen sense of smell when in reality I know I simply have a more educated way of describing scents. In no way this was an innate gift but rather cultivated by choice and with the help of texts around smell, like this blog for instance but also with experimentations from my part. I now know how to recognise certain notes in a blend but again this is not because my nose is more advanced in any way but because I trained my brain to identify scent profiles, particularly of natural scent materials. This is something anyone can do provided they are capable of investing some time and effort and an average amount of money in purchasing those materials in pure form, aka essential oils.

    What really plays a key role in the process is the correct and “lucid” use of language. One must really focus on attributing the right terms to a scent and be as much accurate about it as possible because only when you’ll be able to precisely describe what you are smelling you will truly know it. While I believe in instinct or intuition it will just not cut it in this case, so here goes the “primitive” theory, and perfumers aren’t bloodhounds either. Also paying attention to the terminology used by others is a way to achieve results faster.

    Obviously, thanks are in order to Victoria and to all perfume bloggers worldwide for nurturing the fragrant language within every one of us a spreading a new way of appreciation for a sense most people take for granted. December 13, 2014 at 7:07am Reply

    • Victoria: Your comment echoes my experience too. When I was still in perfumery training, we first spent a lot of time learning to talk about scents and then identify them using very precise terms. And using words correctly helps you to identify the notes correctly. For instance, when you know that ylang ylang has a wintergreen, cooling top note, but that it also has a fruity, green banana facet, you won’t confuse it up with jasmine or tuberose, even in a mixture. December 13, 2014 at 8:02am Reply

  • Hamamelis: What a thought provoking post, thank you Victoria and everyone for their wonderful comments and contributions. A lot of things to think about over the coming holiday period, and I love those reading suggestions.
    In the line of this article I am mostly struck how even in a short period of 6 month my sense of smell can developed (and I suppose the olfactory part of my brain!) and it has been an enrichment in my life I am very grateful for. I love smelling many new perfumes and scents, but I equally love finding the words to describe them, and reading which words others use. It is really a new art to learn, and a most joyous one for that! December 13, 2014 at 4:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: This is the same part that makes me so excited to keep on talking about perfume and scents in general. You learn more just by speaking about it and it’s fascinating how others describe smells. I knew realized how hooked I’d get by this whole olfactory world. December 14, 2014 at 2:38pm Reply

      • Hamamelis: Yes, me too, hooked and taken by the nose 😉 !
        Sometimes I also think my nose is so hungry to smell new scents and perfumes because it is catching up, having been the neglected sense…Wishing you a lovely smelling and good week! December 14, 2014 at 5:13pm Reply

        • Victoria: And to think of all the new discoveries ahead is so exciting. 🙂 December 15, 2014 at 11:55am Reply

  • Carla: We are such a visual society (more so as technology expands), it is hard to trust your nose. It takes confidence to try to describe what you smell, intelligence to describe it well, but other than that, no special powers. I am always amazed by the terrible smells the top fashion houses put out. They can do visual but not olfactory… Olfaction… You know what I mean. Garance Dore is a leading and brilliant fashion blogger but seems to know nothing about perfume and has promoted almost only terrible perfumes like the Olsen twins nirvana ones. There is this disconnect between the visual (fashion) and smell. Or rather the focus is only on the visual December 14, 2014 at 9:24pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, I’ve read some briefs that sounded so interesting on paper and included such great visuals, and to see what perfumes ended up matching that was a disappointment. Of course, fashion houses also rely a lot on market testing, which is never a good way to find an interesting blend. Or a blend with some personality. December 15, 2014 at 11:58am Reply

  • Therése: What a lovely article, Victoria!

    I feel very frustrated by my limited knowledge of scent and how difficult it is for me to descride scent. Just the other day a woman passed me in the street and she was wearing a perfume that I recognised but I couldn’t name it. It annoyed me for the rest of the day!

    Also, your article reminded me of the time when a friend introduced me to a man she thought I would like to date. Turns out he didn’t have a sense of smell, the only scent he could pick up was gazoline. I just couldn’t get past that, even though he was a perfectly nice guy. When I thought about the fact that he would never be able to smell me, my skin, my hair, the prospect of dating him lost all sensuality … December 15, 2014 at 3:35am Reply

    • Victoria: This feeling of grasping for words, of trying to pin a scent down and sometimes being unable to is normal. So, don’t be frustrated! As long as you keep on smelling and keep on talking about it–in whatever way you can, you will get better and better at it. And above all, it will just help you notice more scents around you, and this alone is such a great way to find interesting, beautiful moments in daily life. December 15, 2014 at 12:00pm Reply

  • Caroline: This is such interesting reading and especially during this pandemic when the loss of our sense of smell could be a first indication of the virus. I experienced a strange version of the loss of sense of smell when I had the coronavirus— it was still there but totally out of wack. Smelling gas all the time heightened the fear for sure but also added to physical experience. July 25, 2020 at 1:01pm Reply

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