It is not often that we get to hear scientists talking about the language of smell, so let’s hear from Asifa Majid, a scientist who studies, among other things, the language of smell as she talks to cognitive scientist Jon Sutton about language and thought:
“For example, in English sweet (taste) can also be used to describe people; i.e. a ‘gentle, kind or friendly’ person. But in Hebrew when sweet is used metaphorically it refers to ‘inauthenticity’. A spicy person in English might be considered ‘full of spirit’, but a spicy person in Hebrew would be someone ‘intellectually competent’. If a young man in Guhu Samane (Papua New Guinea) described a group of girls as sweet, the man could relate to them as sisters, and approach them. But if the girls were described as bitter, that would be because they are potential wife material (because they come from the appropriate clan), and so the young man should be cautious and keep his distance. These are all examples of how taste vocabulary can be used for traits and characteristics of people. Metaphor is pervasive in language.”
- taken from The Content of Minds in The Psychologist, July 2016
The entire language of smell is a proxy for other senses. All smells are named for what they’re like, for the experiences they evoke. To name a smell, to verbally explore what a thing smells like, is to reveal something deep inside our minds and at the core of our culture.