Hyunsuh Kim

Tip of the Nose

On Smell and Language

“Wow, it smells wonderful!” I exclaim as we enter the neighborhood bakery. “It smells, it smells so… nutty.” Hmm, that’s not quite the word that I wanted to say, I think to myself.  Ever since starting my internship in Mediamatic, I began to realize the vast gaps in my vocabulary of smells.


An aroma wheel used in wine tasting reveals that most of the English words used to describe smells are source-based. - Source: Wikimedia Foundation. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wine_Aroma_Wheel.jpg

The difficulty of expressing smell verbally has been noted frequently, what some call the “tip-of-the-nose phenomenon” (Auffarth). Probing into the neuroscience and psychology of smell, we learn that smell, unlike other senses, is first directed to the limbic system and then the higher cortical areas. While this leads to smell eliciting an immediate and visceral emotional reaction, it also implies that because it takes time for smell to reach the higher areas responsible for language, and many smells do quickly dissipate before comprehension can take place, we often find that “smells are hard to put into words” (Nieuwhof). 

However, one may be too quick to claim that the poverty of olfactory diction is therefore universal. Even coming from the personal experience of speaking Korean, my mother tongue, and English, I often notice several Korean words for tastes and smells which cannot be translated into English. One of the examples is the adjective 고소한 kosohan, which describes a pleasant taste of oil and grains, of nuts, butter, sizzling bacon fat, freshly baked bread, and chicory tea. The closest English word would be “nutty”, but to describe the taste of nuts by using the very word (in linguistics, we refer to such adjectives as being source-based) exemplifies the lack of this language’s creativity in this regard.

Could it be that some languages are more equipped to discuss smell than others? Linguists say yes. Researchers Majid and Burenhult report that speakers of Jahai, a language used in the Malay Peninsula, have an olfactory vocabulary whose size rivals that of their color vocabulary. They found that while English speakers tended to rely on source-based words (“this smells cinnamon-like…”) to describe different odorants, not only did Jahai speakers use words reserved for smells originally, but were also more able to distinguish different odorants than did English speakers, as they had a more precise degree of categorizing these odorants— just as a person who knows words such as “turquoise”, “indigo”, “marine” would be able to distinguish the various shades more than a person who only has “blue” in their vocabulary. 


The richness and diversity of smell, transient as ever, escape our conscious and linguistic understanding. - Source: Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/vectors/smell-rose-flower-fragrant-aroma-41970/

It may be interesting to consider the words that refer to smell (both the category of stimuli and the act) itself in different languages. In English, we have quite a few words used to refer to smell— smell being one of them, but also odor, aroma, scent, perfume, stench, stink, bouquet, fragrance and so on. Many of them already entail the valence of the odorants as they are perceived, stench being on the negative end of the spectrum and fragrance on the positive end, while smell and odor are more neutral. Scent, from Latin sentire (“to perceive, feel”), shares an etymological origin with sentiment. Fascinatingly, aroma originates from Greek arōma (“spice”), perfume from Italian parfumare (“to smoke through”), bouquet from Old French bos (“wood”), referring to the incense burning practice that was popular in mid 16th century Europe— these words referring to smell are source-based themselves!

From these words, one may carefully suppose that the concept of smell in English is particularly coupled with subjective preference, emotion and the very material sources which inspire them. In a very different language, spoken in Umeda, New Guinea, the word for “smell”, nugwi, shares an etymological origin with the word for “dream”, yinugwi. Anthropologist Alfred Gell describes that for the people in Umeda, “smells are like dreams in which things usually hidden, that is to say unavailable to vision, are revealed” (Graham). Unlike English that grounds smell in the material and tangible realm, in Umeda, smell is a potential to outwit vision, almost in opposition to vision, to enlighten the perceiver with transcendental knowledge, and yet one which is so fleeting and fragile. In Japan, the art of incense composition and appreciation is referred to as kodo, which literally means “listening to the scent” (for more exploration of this idea, visit Mediamatic’s interview with artist Mariko Hori). The act of smelling in old Japan was akin to perceiving a narrative or a music piece, all of which, like smell, shares the aspect of being temporal and progressive.

“What words exist in Greek that don’t exist in English? Once I have those, I will make up words in English that correspond to the missing Greek words. Part of me feels that this trans-linguistic exchange might be the only way to defeat nationalism once and for all. Just, you know, get it over with and make whatever language we are living in as big and as beautiful as possible. Consolidate all the inventories, and give similar terms more specific meanings, until we can all remember everything forever and by its own name.” 

- Artist Georgia Sagri, in describing her work Exhibita.Ch/eat the Tool

Thus the concept of smell occupies different spaces in different cultural landscapes and languages, and it may occupy larger spaces in some languages more than others. I find this discrepancy between the odorants and the cultural conceptualization of them particularly subversive in the colonial discourse. One may have gotten in hold of all the spices, herbs and other valuable odorants that one desired, through the exploitation of the flora and fauna whom they have colonized. Yet, one has merely one word to describe the flavors of these wonderfully diverse smelling agents: spicy. Consider how inadequate this word is— one has ginger, garlic, cinnamon, chili, turmeric, cardamom, anise, pepper and yet all one can utter to express how they find the interaction is “spicy”! We need not list all the words that are available in some of the other languages, to understand how limiting this language is when it comes to experiencing and appreciating these odorants. The rich history, culture, narratives and lives of the local people in their home environment continually escape the rapaciously grasping hands.


Erysichthon of Thessaly - Cursed with an insatiable hunger after cutting down a sacred tree. Even after draining his entire fortune to buy food, he suffered from an extreme craving which led him to finally devour his own body. Illustration: The Lore of the Garden. https://heathcollom.wordpress.com/tag/erysichthon/