What We Talk About When We Talk About Smells

These probably smell good.

“Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, emanate from us. We live in a constant wash of them. Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us like the fabrications they are. Words are small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world. But they are shapes, they bring the world into focus, they corral ideas, they hone thoughts, they paint watercolors of perception.” – Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Diane Ackerman, poet, natural historian, and writer extraordinaire, writes in the Smell section of her evocative, entrancing book that “smell is the mute sense, the one without words. Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasure and exaltation.” Why is describing smells so difficult? Scents can be so powerful, so stinky, so pungent, so expressive, so dank. Several weeks ago I went for a wine-tasting weekend, and over the course of a dozen wineries, I must have smelled and sipped 40 wines, but struggled then as I do now to find words that begin to describe what I experienced. “Fruity. Somewhat earthy. Very… red. More wine please. Ah! Somewhat fruity. Very earthy!”

Our ability to describe comes from the language we use. Without the proper words at our disposal, we’ll just dance around, unable to describe in detail our senses. If we only had a smell-based lexicon like the Maniq tribe from Thailand, who can describe smells up to five times as fast as us naive nostril’d speakers of English. The Maniq use “abstract words to describe smells in the same way as we use blue, red and yellow to describe colours” while we “rely upon the source of the smell as a description – using words like fruity or lemon.” English is perfectly equipped to deal with such other abstract ideas as thought, art, jazz and Adam Sandler’s continued comedy success. What about our culture’s development muted our sense-describing skills?

My parents recently moved away from Austin, rendering me once again a breakfast taco-less stranger to the bountiful brisketed lands of central Texas. Gone are my dry-rubbed meat sweats, and the smoke that soaked me to a molecular level. I’ll always have the memories. But, as the New York Times asks, would you want to smell barbecue all the time? The smelly protest to scrub the air clean of that flavorful, rich oaky smoke that is synonymous with Texas goes to show that “one person’s putrid is another person’s pleasant, and local governments around the country are having a hard time regulating what’s in the olfaction of the beholder.”

The legality of enforcing smell standards results in subjective enforcement – the efforts of odor inspectors – as well as allegedly objective ones – meet the Nasal Ranger Field Olfactometer – which measures “ambient odor dilution-to-threshold.” Still, when the smell of marijuana drying and curing is numerically equivalent to the scent of freshly baked cinnamon rolls wafting from the neighborhood bakery, there is still work to be done. On another note, if you’re in a neighborhood that smells deeply of marijuana drying and curing, consider opening a bakery that makes freshly baked cinnamon rolls.

Part of the issue is that our developed world reeks less than it once did. Modern life smells so good it’s killing the perfume industry – sales of mass fragrances have dropped by half since 2000 (though pricier perfumes, often fronted by celebrities, are reaching record highs). Everything is scented, and “fragrances have lost their mystique.”  Companies like Verizon Wireless and United Airlines are trademarking scents that they spray around their businesses and lounges. This is not dissimilar to animals spraying their musk, in case you wanted to be weirded out by walking in for a cell phone upgrade.

Smell technology has been the next frontier for scent entrepreneurs (scentrepreneurs, as they should be known) for decades. Not content to let sleeping Smell-O-Vision’s lie, a new app called oNotes wants to be the iTunes of smells. It relies on “the oPhone, a piece of hardware that transmits olfactory information like our phones send texts.” The hope is that the “gentle blasts of air” which “pass over the cartridges” that “dispense discreet but potent puffs of smell out of the top of the tube” will add another level of immersion to our lives, and could find uses in books, health care, music, virtual reality, automobiles, and yes, films.

If there is one smell that is sacred to me, above even freshly baked pie and Saturday morning wet soccer grass, it is the smell of rain. Nothing fires up my must-run tendencies like the potential for extra nosefuls of rain-soaked air. So you can imagine why I’m planning an international trip to smell firsthand How One Indian Village Turns Rain Into Perfume. The article describes not only the people who have figured out how to capture that fresh rain smell, but just how that fresh rain smell works: “Rain picks up odors from the molecules it meets. So its essence can come off as differently as all the flowers on all the continents—rose-obvious, barely there like a carnation, fleeting as a whiff of orange blossom as your car speeds past the grove. It depends on the type of storm, the part of the world where it falls, and the subjective memory of the nose behind the sniff.”

For those looking for an America-specific translation: “City rain smells of steaming asphalt, in contrast to the grassy sweetness of rain in the countryside. Ocean rain smells briny like Maine clam flats on a falling tide. In the desert of the southwestern United States, rare storms punch the atmosphere with creosote and sage. In the southeast, frequent squalls leave the damp freshness of a wet pine forest.”

If, for me, the strongest sense memories come from baking, wet grass, and running, it is because each of these smells occurred during a formative part of my life. In a world whose smell noise has been dramatically turned down over the past centuries, how do we continue our smelly education? The Institute for Art and Olfaction opened recently in Los Angeles with a focus on providing perfume for the people through weekly open sessions and monthly sit downs (for the members of the so-called Smelly Vials Perfume Club), “in addition to hosting smell-o-rific events like an annual awards ceremony, a Valentine’s Day mixer where singles were paired up by scent preferences, and a concert in which audience members were blindfolded for an olfactory journey, the organization collaborates with artists who use scent in creative ways.“ What’s more, they are about to create a mural entirely comprised of air fresheners, which “may be the biggest public art piece made of car air fresheners, ever?” and will give bloggers everywhere license to use the title “Smelly arts.”

So, as I struggle along, unable to describe in great detail the world of smell, content with amassing smell-centric experiences for my mind to revel in, I will leave you with a final thought from Diane Ackerman:

“If there are words for all the pastels in a hue — the lavenders, mauves, fuchsias, plums, and lilacs — who will name the tones and tints of a smell? It’s as if we were hypnotized en masse and told to selectively forget. It may be, too, that smells move us so profoundly, in part, because we cannot utter their names. In a world sayable and lush, where marvels offer themselves up readily for verbal dissection, smells are often right on the tip of our tongues — but no closer — and it gives them a kind of magical distance, a mystery, a power without a name, a sacredness.”

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