Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Does a Limited Vocabulary Improve Scent Description?

A few months ago, when my 6-year-old grandson was a daily fixture in my house, we used to play the ‘sniffing game’ together, better known as the 20-a-day exercise. I was, and still am, greatly impressed with his descriptions as opposed to the overly-wordy and non-descriptive scent descriptions I was writing down in my notebook. He described what he smelled in his own way. Oud Vietnam and oud Cambodian were 'gicky mud' or it could have been 'bug'?; khus attar and vetyver mitti co-distillates got 'dirt' and the most interesting of them all was the ruh khus; his eyes lit up and he said 'mmm, tea!' Who can’t understand these types of descriptions? Simple. Accurate. Maybe in need of a little elaboration, but the point is made, nonetheless.

I’ve read descriptions which boggle the mind, and most of them were my own. What does “floral” smell like exactly? Or “fresh”? “Sparkling”? We can somewhat understand “green”, but which green? The green of river moss, or the green of violet leaf? The green of galbanum, with its touches of cigarette butt and scratchy throat, or the breath-stealing, chilled green of cilantro? See? Even these descriptions aren’t entirely accurate.

How does one describe jasmine sambac to someone who has never smelled jasmine sambac, or its smell-alike counterparts? It’s much like describing color to someone born blind. Do you really think telling someone a perfume smells richly indolic will inspire them to rush out and purchase said perfume if they read the scent description for the word indole? From comes this luscious gem:

Indole ~ –noun Chemistry; a colorless to yellow solid, C8H7N, having a low melting point and a fecal odor, found in the oil of jasmine and clove and as a putrefaction product from animals’ intestines: used in perfumery and as a reagent.

Mmmmm, yummy!

Here are a few of my favorite scent descriptions that I’ve “collected” over the years:

Cumin ~ sweaty dude pits and crotch
Oudh ~ butt crack putty
Tuberose ~ boiled weenie water
Jasmine grandiflorum ~ old whore
Cognac ~ rotten egg
Valerian ~ sweaty feet

Some of these are dead-on accurate, others a little off the mark. All I know is that when I’m really stumped by a scent, one that truly eludes me, I grab the kid and shove the scent strip under his nose and let him rip into it.

“What’s it smell like, Odie?”
“Smells like toenails, Grandma.”


  1. Wasn't it Art Linklater who said "kids say the darnest things"? A shame we adults lose that childlike ability to express in unedited terms!

  2. I believe we think too hard and want to be impressive with our descriptions. It can get a little out of hand.

    Kids do say the darnedest things. I remember a few little darlings from my own kids ~ my daughter at about 2 1/2 calling her nose a "snogle"; my youngest at three watching a fantastic sunset and exclaiming, "The sky is falling and it's scooping up the blues!" And then one of my older boys describing how it felt to be shocked by an electric wire -- he was "placked!", and boy, does getting placked really hurt.

    I've even let this little guy, the grandson, help me out with evaluating finished compositions. He's got an excellent nose, my little apprentice.

  3. Taking a perfume class, I've been using the more scientific descriptors as part of the training. But sometimes an aromatic just has simple, mundane words that describe it perfectly.

    Like this petitgrain I have- it smells like neroli, a little, but also very starchy like corn tortillas, so it reminds me of Mexican food in Phoenix, with the orange groves.

    So, on my evaluation notes for it, it says "midnight taco truck, Phoenix". Not a good description for a perfume ad, but I bet many people would know exactly what I mean!


  4. Exactly!

    Thanks for this comment :D

  5. Fabulous blog and so well written, when I'm basking in a scent and my teens walk in and comment "smells like bug spray in here" ........well what can I say but I love it.



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