Why So Few English Words for Odors?

Another language shows it doesn’t have to be so

Photo by Dennis Wong
Photo by Dennis Wong


The English language has many words for colors, and many more—checkered, mottled, paisley—describe how they may be patterned. Tastes are also well represented: a latte can be sweet or bitter, rich, or bland. Words like smooth and ticklish and hot all depict how the world feels on our fingertips. And from musical terms to onomatopoeias, our language does not skimp on ways to describe sounds.

But—though I can’t say I’d ever noticed before—there’s something of a lexical void when it comes to words for smells. Oh, there are a few candidates, but putrid and stinky and the misleading noisome don’t describe the characteristics of a smell so much as how much we can’t stand it. Generally, when we attempt to put words to odors, we must do so by retrieving the sources of these odors. Smells like cinnamon, we say, or Smells like burnt toast. (Looks sun-colored. Feels of feather-brushing.)

We get by, of course, though not stunningly. “Presented with familiar everyday objects, such as coffee, peanut butter or chocolate, ordinary people correctly name only around 50% of odors,” write Asifa Majid and Niclas Burenhult, researchers with appointments at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. “If people displayed similar performance with a visual object, they would be diagnosed as aphasic and sent for medical help.” Ouch. In a language chockfull of synonyms—and with evident room for a better odor-naming system than the one we’ve got—this seems quite the omission. Is there something about smells that makes them inherently indescribable?

Not according to a new study by Majid and Burenhult. Consider Jahai, a language spoken by a hunter-gatherer group in Malaysia that has a sizeable vocabulary to characterize scents. Jahai has more than a dozen basic odor terms, including words that translate roughly to “having a stinging smell” (used to describe the odors of petrol, bat poop, and ginger root) and “having a bloody smell that attracts tigers” (used to describe, among other things, the odor of crushed head lice).

The researchers confirmed the Jahai olfactory lexicon by comparing the performances of Jahai speakers and English speakers on two different tasks: color-naming and scent-naming. Color-naming required individuals to describe 80 different colored chips as best they could, while scent-naming required them to sniff odors extracted from lemons, turpentine, smoke, and the like, and do the same. As a group, the English speakers all tended to agree—and pithily—on color terms, just as we’d expect given how strongly color terms are encoded in English. But they were stumped by scents, offering disagreeing, and long-winded, responses. Jahai speakers, on the other hand, experienced much less difficulty describing the odors, finding them just as codable as colors (though interestingly, they showed poorer agreement on color terms than English the speakers did).

Why does Jahai have odor terms? Is there something special about a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, or living in Malaysia, or the Jahai culture that emphasizes scent? Or, perhaps a better question: Why does English not have odor terms? In an email, Majid told me that it was “quite possible that there are recurrent patterns to be found in what sorts of smells communities develop words for.” That said, she believes that “the variation is to be expected given what we find in other domains.”

Every language carves up the world somewhat differently. Though English—rather famously in linguistic circles—includes nearly a dozen basic color terms (and even more subordinate ones, like maroon and chartreuse), other languages encode far fewer: six or three or even two. It is hard for English speakers to imagine making do without magenta or aquamarine, much less blue. But when it comes to odors, it is English that has an impoverished vocabulary—and yet we’re perfectly happy without dedicated terms for “having a stinging smell” or “having a bloody smell that attracts tigers.”

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Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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