Smell lacks a well-developed vocabulary despite its importance

Augustana English professor Stephanie Oliver on how the “lower-order” sense keeps us safe and connects us to memories or emotions, even though it seems to escape language.

Stephanie Oliver - 22 October 2021

The power of the nose is considerable. Whether it’s the rich aroma of morning coffee, the enticing smell of Thanksgiving dinner, the lingering fragrance of a romantic partner or the nagging odour of dirty laundry, scents permeate our daily lives. 

Not only does our sense of smell keep us safe by helping us detect odours, such as smoke and rotten food, but it also connects us to powerful memories and emotions. When we have a cold or flu, or, worse yet, the COVID-19 virus, we may temporarily lose our sense of smell (and with it, much of the flavour of the foods we eat), temporarily losing these experiences.

Yet despite the important role our sense of smell plays in making sense of the world around us, we rarely reflect on its importance. But what might we learn from turning our attention to smell? What can scent tell us about ourselves and the world? It turns out that literature can help us explore these questions.

As argued by the authors of the influential book Aroma: A Cultural History of Smell, scent’s boundary-crossing abilities and ties to memory and emotion were deemed a threat to Enlightenment-era societies that privileged vision, a sense that seemed to more readily lend itself to scientific objectivity, classification, reason and rationality. The denigration of scent continued in the work of major eighteenth and nineteenth-century thinkers like Emmanuel Kant, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud.

Freud, for example, suggested that smell embodied the antithesis of that which was physically—and by extension, intellectually and morally—upright. Smell became linked to savagery, madness, hedonism and the seemingly superfluous. As a result, many Western cultures still marginalize smell as a so-called “lower-order” sense.

Compared to other senses like sight and hearing, smell lacks a well-developed vocabulary in English, so literature plays a crucial role in expanding our olfactory language. Odours tend to be framed as ephemeral phenomena associated with gut reactions as opposed to the rational realm of language. Yet it is precisely because scents seem to escape language that the way we do describe scents is significant. Moreover, because it is so difficult to permanently capture scents, written descriptions play an important role in recording encounters with smell.

It is not surprising, then, that literature has played an influential role in shaping our understanding of scent. Take Swann’s Way, a twentieth-century novel by French writer Marcel Proust. In a famous scene, the smell and taste of petite madeleines (small French cakes) triggers a flashback for Proust’s narrator, transporting him to an earlier time enjoying the cakes as a child. Proust’s meditation on the link between smell, taste and memory was so novel and detailed that it provided scientists with a new language for describing and understanding involuntary memory; the scene now appears in numerous scientific publications on the topic.

It is perhaps because smell-centric literature is so rare that novels such as Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985) and Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume (1984) still have cult-like followings, despite both being published over 30 years ago. More recently, Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho used scent in subtle ways to explore class divisions and social hierarchies in his film Parasite, a film that won the 2019 Oscar for Best Picture.

Whether we pay close attention to our sense of smell or not, it plays a significant role in our daily lives and society at large. If, like Proust’s narrator, you begin to follow your nose, the journey may surprise you.

Stephanie Oliver, English, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column was originally published in the Camrose Booster on October 12, 2021.