#645: The Language of Smell

June 10th, 2016

I thought the day was petrichor, but it turns out I didn’t remember the word right.

I’ve come across the word petrichor twice, first as a plot point in a 2011 episode of “Doctor Who.” I came across it again earlier this year, in a daily vocabulary word e-newsletter I subscribe to.

In the newsletter, I found that petrichor is a newbie word, not one honed through thousands of years of verbal evolution, but one created by two Australian researchers in a paper in 1964.

It means the smell of the earth when rain follows a dry spell.

But that’s not what Chicago smells like this morning.

We think in a language of adapted words. Through millennia and continents, we steal and muddle words based on shared concepts.

Somersault and insult both come from the Latin word for “to leap.” One took the concept more toward acrobatics, the other became to leap on someone with words. Pervert and vertigo, vocation and advocate, require and conquer. Seemingly unconnected English but for hints in a long-dead language that tell us the connection is to turn, a voice or to seek.

Even within our own language, we will thieve words from completely different areas of thought if we don’t have the word we need.

We steel ourselves to prove our grit.

Attractive people are hot. Fashionable ones are cool. Some people are both hot and cool, but can come off as a little cold.

But among these areas of thought, metals and minerals used to describe human behavior and temperature used to say if we want to kiss or take style tips from someone, lonely smell is left off the list.

Aside from a few outlier tongues like Maniq or Jahai, most languages have almost no words for individual smells, beyond the occasional “musty” or a few coined petrichors no one uses.

We say things the air smells like, sure. Perfumed, fishy, flowery, skunky, smoky.

And some words we swipe from the language of taste. Salty, spicy, acid, sharp, crisp.

And maybe a smell might nauseate or choke us, but that’s an action.

Fetid, pungent, fragrant, odorous and acrid all mean that whatever the odor is, it’s strong. You might as well say the smell is smelly.

Without resorting to comparison or theft, we have no words to say the-smell-of-a-post-rain-downtown-on-a-Friday.

We have no words for the smell after an urban thunderstorm, where lightning shook the skies at night, but now it’s simply damp and salty, with a light breeze making it all seem wonderful. There’s no way to say the air smelled cool and crisp without stealing words from temperature or texture.

There’s no word that says the morning smelled like the storm had washed away our sins, but teased that they’ll be back sooner than we think.

I’ve written about this city in terms of color and sound, action and motion and taste and feel, but this one leaves me baffled, one of five senses completely locked from language.

All I think about is the odd, light smell filling the air this morning and I just don’t have the words.

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The smell of Romanian tripe soup

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