Describing Smells

While describing smells, I find that I almost always rely on descripters from several other senses, more so than when I am describing something I see. For example, I see a beautiful sunset, and I think orange flames, marshmallow clouds. Or  egg-yolk dripping down the sky. But when I smell a perfume, for example, I think it smells yellow, or purple. Low-pitched like violets, or higher toned like spicy roses. I might even think that it reminds me of the first time I watched a thunderstorm.

I first wondered whether this discrepancy  was because  we have spent more time, as a society, describing  visual objects and therefore have enough adjectives to do so. While, when it comes to smell, we are somewhat behind and therefore borrow already established sensory descripters from vision and audition. Also it is possible, that we often define things by how they look and so a visual attribute is invariably bound to any sensory object. All this may be true, to some extent, but I do think there is something more. Possibly even a neurobiological basis for the multi-sensory manner in which we perceive smell. When I smell something, I don’t just use visual or auditory descriptors because I can’t find olfactory ones, but I actually experience smell in terms of multiple senses: colors, sounds and tactile sensations, generating crossmodal metaphors. Isn’t that the case with many of you?

From an evolutionary perspective, it seems to me that the hunter-gatherer humans probably used the visual and auditory senses to hunt for food, more so than they used smell. Smell probably was more part of the reward (‘Wow, that food smells/tastes amazing, let us hunt for more tomorrow!”) that acted as a propeller, intensifying the desire to hunt for more food. Thus when smell is more of a reward than a weapon, it is likely that you’d want a scent to evoke other sensory experiences, thus consolidating and reinforcing the olfactory experience, making it a more effective reward. Isn’t that possible?

I am not claiming any scientific basis for these arguments. This is just food for thought and I thought I’d chew on it for a bit..:).

                                        So, take a sniff and tell me: How do YOU describe a smell?

 Note 1 : I am reading some scientific literature on olfactory processing, so I will update this post if I find something illuminating
Photo Credit: via Creative Commons
Photo Credit: via Creative Commons


  1. It’s an interesting question.

    I almost never associate smell with a color with the exception of “green” but when I use this word to describe the scent I think more of leaves, grass, etc. than of a color itself. Is “transparent” a color?

    I do not use too many ocular or tactile descriptors: bright, dull, dark, vivid (?), warm, cold, soft – and that’s it.

    Mostly while describing smells I borrow gustatory terms: sweet, salty, tart, bitter, sour, dry, spicy. I wonder, does “yummy” stand for “umami-ness”? 😉 But, in general, it’s understandable since these two senses are tied really close in our sensatory system.

    • That’s true- I have a lot of food associations with several perfumes , even when they are not outright gourmand-y.
      Thanks for stopping by, Undina! I look forward to exploring your blog as well.

  2. Lavanya what an interesting blog! Please allow me to copy from the introductory post on my blog because this is exactly what I am talking about:

    “It is not always evident how subjective our perception of smell is but take a moment to think of how we perceive and how we describe taste. Salty, sweet, sour, bitter. That’s it! Four qualities that correspond to the four receptors in our tongue that trigger the nerve reaction which corresponds to how something tastes (scientists have found two more receptors, for protein and fat but these have not been registered to the conscious of the human mind yet). But when it comes to describing a scent we have to resort to breaking it down to its components, the notes, and list them in an attempt to communicate to others how we perceive it. And the reason for that is simply because this is how we smell: we can only smell molecules for which we already have olfactory receptors. Each molecule stimulates its receptor and sends a signal to the brain that there are roses around or that the food has been burned. Now imagine what a tough job this is for the brain to identify thousands of different smells. And how hard it is for the brain to find the words to express all these smells that tickle the olfactory nerves and puzzle the brain. And to make things even harder, smell is the sense that reacts faster than any else and is most closely related to feelings and memory. Before we even have the chance to find the words to communicate what we smell the memories and feelings jump in the forefront to blur the image.”

    I would like to hear what you think of my aproach.

    • Hi memoryofscent! Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

      I love how you speak of memories and feelings blurring the image. That is exactly how it works for me, which is why many times I seem to end up with scent associations very different from other bloggers/perfumistas..I have often described memories and cultural associations acting as a sieve or magnifying glass that differentially exaggerates parts of perfumes/scents.. Like here :

      But I love your idea of these memories and feelings acting as a filter, blurring the images, so we can never accurately/objectively describe a smell because we never have access to that first unblurred image..Thank you! Though I notice that I sometimes am able to ‘see’ the ‘perfume image’ more clearly when I wear a perfume multiple times. But those first few wearing, the memories of other scents just take over..:)

  3. I believe that subjectivity is inevitable if not welcome when we experience a smell. Because smell is our first interaction with the environment from an evolutionary point of view and it has to unite the physical body with… well, the rest of it. This is why I don’t like very much reviews that stay too much on listed notes and qualities of the composition. Not that I don’t admire them but I just enjoy reading about feelings and experiences related with perfumes.

    Sunaesthesia is a blessing. I remember smelling Gris Clair for the first time. I had the most vivid image in front of me and I was in it. Sort of like remembering something that had never actually happened but was imprinted in me. Very strange feeling.

    I will read the article. Thank you.

    • How cool- are you synesthetic? Do you have a similar experience each time you smell Gris Clair?

      I am very interested in synesthesia – I am not a hardwired synesthete but I do get visual accompaniments when I smell something- either a color or an image..

      • I am afraid that I don’t get the same synaesthetic response every time I smell Gris Clair. I suppose there has to be the element of surprise to trigger such a vivid response. But in general I tend to see images, or rather feel ambiances and I use this as an element in my reviews. Ambre Sultan is another perfume that brings very intense feelings, bad ones. It makes me very sad and a sensation like I am being followed or persecuted. I have stopped trying to get to terms with this perfume. It’s impossible. Non sweet amber is the culprit I think. The sweet amber of Ambre Precieux does not have this effect on me.

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