Of all the human senses, I find smell the hardest to use in writing. And yet, it’s one of the most powerful, as a number of studies have shown it’s hard-wired into our brain, and a shortcut to all sorts of strong emotions. So why is it so hard to find the right word for a smell?
Turns out, I’m hardly the only one in this predicament. As a recent Economist article on scents recently explained, the human sense of smell itself is weak. Scientists suspect this is the result of an evolutionary trade-off in the primate brain in favor of visual procession power. In simple terms, we see great, but we couldn’t smell ourselves out of a perfume factory.
This is of particular interest to humans, as the relative weakness of smell compared with sight extends to language, too. Humans have no difficulty putting names to colors but are notoriously bad at putting names to odors. This may be a matter of how our brain is wired. Linguists, however, suspect it’s more likely a consequence of the tendency of languages to contain words useful to their speakers. Since smells matter little to most people, most languages have few abstract words for them.
Enter Dr. Majid And The Jahai
Recent research conducted by Dr. Majid in Malaysia seems to support this theory. Jahai, a group of hunter-gatherers who live in western Malaysia, are remarkably good at naming odors. When she asked some Jahai, and some Americans to name colors and odors they were presented with, the Americans generally agreed with one another when it came to naming colors but not when putting names to odors. When presented with cinnamon, for example, they described it variously as sweet, spicy, wine, candy, edible and potpourri. When presented with baby powder they offered vanilla, wax, baby oil, toilet paper, dentist office, hand lotion, rose and bubble gum as descriptions. Jahai answers, in contrast, were in equal agreement about both odors and colors.
This might, in part, be because the Jahai have a dozen words dedicated to describing different sorts of smells in the abstract (the equivalent of color-words such as red, blue, black and white, of which there are generally reckoned to be 11 in English). For example, the Jahai use the word “cŋεs” for stinging sorts of smells associated with petrol, smoke and various insects, and “plʔeŋ” for bloody, fishy and meaty sorts of smells. According to Dr. Majid, only “musty” is able to act in this way in English without drawing on analogy (banana-like, gooseberry-noted, and even earthy and sweet-smelling, are all analogies of some sort).
Given these findings, the scientists argue that it is the hunting-and-gathering way of life, rather than the use of a particular language, that is crucial to the use of abstract names for odors. Presumably, the business of surviving by eating what the forest has to offer requires a more discriminating use of the nostrils than is needed for farming.
What About Writing?
What does this mean for your writing? Unless your story takes place during a wine tasting, the easiest way to explain a smell to your reader in a way that triggers an emotional response is through an analogy or a metaphor.
“The tiny room stank of sweat and despair” carries more emotional punch than if you tried to describe the actual scent of sweat and immediately creates a foreboding, claustrophobic environment.
Accordingly, “She sashayed out of the sea, dripping, her chocolate skin smelling of coconut and sea salt and sunshine” readily evokes a sexy woman’s dip into the Caribbean.
So, unless you’re discussing wine, forego fancy words like “gooseberry-noted” and “sweet tanin” and grab the reader by their nose!