Odours and naming conventions

I’m an olfactory psychologist by trade and I’ve been interested at the marginalization of my area of study when compared to other, trendier senses. It is with a grim acceptance that my audience may not know what this is, so I’ll state that olfaction pertains to the sense of smell. This sort of naming convention isn’t necessarily exclusive to olfaction; that is, that we have a popular word and then an unpopular (but scientifically literate) word for one sense. However what I am saying is that there is some sort of joke at the olfactory psychologist’s expense that not everyone else who studies senses et al. has to deal with. A taste psychologist sounds legit (even though you could call them a gustation psychologist), a hearing specialist (as opposed to say, an aural technician) also sounds decent. However it is only my domain where I can’t really call myself something similar i.e. a smell psychologist. There’s something weird about it; it sounds almost humourous. What makes it worse is that the word “smell” applies to both the act of smelling and the act of discussing the sense of smell hence the classic joke:

Tony: my dog recently had an operation and had his nose removed.

Dick: how does he smell?

Tony: terrible!

… whose existence probably exacerbates the confusion. I do not use my own nose to solve psychological conundrums. I use participant’s olfactory responses to make scientific theories. It seems strange to me that in the wordingly verbose language that is English that we have to share a word between two similarly-based but utterly different meanings.

The origins of why olfaction have been sidelined are surprisingly ancient. Aristotle (that bastard) called it a “lower” sense compared to vision, hearing etc. and it was subsequently semi-ignored except as a sort of indulgence in the form of perfumes and exotic scents. Imagine how much exposure to bacterial infection could have been avoided if people in the middle ages paid attention to what their sense of smell was telling them. Therein lies half the humour and source of vituperation. A bad smell is typically the one you pay attention to, and it’s made worse in that you can’t close your nostrils quite as easily as your eyelids.

The organ of the nose, despite being directly on your face, does much to discredit olfaction. Even Shakespeare had his fun with half a dozen characters with odd shaped noses, such as Bardolph from Henry V. There’s a strange Japanese theme that runs throughout anime and some images to de-emphasise or completely remove the nose from characters and portraits (take a look at Dragonball Z’s Krillen as an example). Yes there are handsome noses, but when we find a handsome nose, we typically take the person to have a handsome face, and an ugly nose remains an ugly nose, regardless of what face it is on.

I digress. Let’s move away from the social politics and science and look at what it takes to name an odour that you smell. It’s really rather difficult without referring to what it “tastes” like (although most of that is smell too) or what the object producing the smell is. So it is easy to say “mmm coffee” when one smells coffee, or “eugh, must be a skip” but you can’t say more than “it’s disgusting” or “it’s nice”. For vision you can say something is a particular colour, hearing you can define pitch and tone, taste has the five classics. Meanwhile smell is a hodge podge of naming conventions.

Defining odours to any kind of complexity is difficult for two reasons. Firstly, there is simply not a big enough vocabulary. Secondly, you have to train yourself to identify odours. By the way, I encourage you to really detect the odours you experience- it empowers memory and can give a dearth of  information and experience. Defining odours needs something new; probably a whole set of words that may have some connection to objects and tastes, but should nonetheless be identifiable as  concepts, not just singular objects. Here are a few concepts I propose as examples:

square: the odour has a quality that makes the nose a bit itchy, or “heavy”. It’s generally unpleasant and  smells uncompromising and monotone, like it has the capacity to damage your delicate nostrils. Worked metals have a strong square smell, as does chlorine in the pool, and some wood varnishes.

buttered: the smell quality is “warm” and somewhat oily. It serves as a background smell and wraps up other odours, often mixing them, usually generating food anticipation. Butter being cooked, especially with herbs, has this quality, as does most food stocks, broths, soups etc. Non-food sources do exist, such as fish carcasses at markets, or as a pure nonfood based, something like an oil burner when other odours are also involved.

florid: a smell that is water based but has unmistakable touches of plant matter. It’s a difficult concept to describe, but one could describe florid as the odour quality of fresh cut grass that is shared with the smell of breaking a green branch, or cutting the stem of a weed. Curiously, florid is the smell I would almost describe certain weedkillers to possess, such as Roundup.

So there you have it. Think I’m on to something? Think it’s a lost cause? Think it’s not worth your time? Let me know. Any more odour qualities I’d be happy to hear about too!

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~ by freeze43 on June 14, 2012.

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