Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Nothing Rhymes with Orange

Eminem on Orange 

Excerpt from Hidden Scents, 1st edition - Chapter 5: The Language of Smell

What is “smell”? It is a process, a reaction, a verb. It is a phenomenon, an experience. And it is, of course, an odor molecule, an aroma compound; it is evaporated, a vaporous substance wafting through the air. Evaporation requires heat. There is garbage, and there is hot garbage. A chemically-mediated phenomenon, smell is inescapably associated with its source. It is because of this link that smell suffers from the name-thing problem. “Orange” is a rich example of this problem, because it establishes a name-thing relationship among multiple nodes of the lexicography.

Oranges, and all Citrus in general, were unknown to the Greco-Roman cultures, as they were isolated from China and its citrus-rich environs for the duration of their time. It is in resonance with this; one might recollect that the word orange did not enter the European languages (via Old French) until circa 1300 C.E., with the color coming still hundreds of years later.

The word “orange” is polysemous; it means a few different things. It is the name of a color, one of the gradations on the spectrum of visible light. It is the name of a place in France from whence the Anglicized color-name is often mistakenly derived. Orange is also the name of a fruit, derived from Romance-speaking traders who called it something similar. And finally, it is the name of a particular scent, one that comes from the aforementioned fruit tree. As with many smell names, the “smell of orange” is usually referred to as the orange fruit itself, which is made up of many molecules, some of which are perceived as odors, and which have their own names, such as Limonene, Myrcene, alpha-Pinene, etc., (note, orange-the-smell is not one particular molecule, but a combination). Technically, the problem is this – in referring to orange-the-smell, one is also referring to orange-the-fruit.* Gardenia is a flower and a smell, and so is Jasmine, and Rose. And some of the odor-molecules that make up an orange also make up a gardenia, and so on.

And yet, Orange might be referred to as Lemon, in that the two share the super-ordinate category of Citrus. From a subjective perspective, and because test subjects perform so poorly on smell-recognition tasks, there tends to be an indiscriminable difference between many of the Citrus smells, especially in regards to this Orange-Lemon relationship (Dubois 2007).

Herein, reference might be made to the orange fruit itself, or the orange smell emanating from that fruit, or the primary constituent molecule that distinguishes that scent;** and yet distinction may not be overtly articulated. For this reason, the context of the word-use is often critical. Smell offers such name-thing conflations, and disambiguation amongst them all is cumbersome, and makes for difficult reading, especially upon the subject of Language, and is thus rejected in favor of fluency.

*In total, the orange tree avails three different smell-names: the “Neroli” flower, the peel of the orange fruit, and the leaves, called Pettigrain.

** Although Limonene shows the highest concentration, as per gas chromatography analysis, this does not indicate the subjective perception of individual molecules according to their prothetic measurements, that is, their intensity. Though some other molecules besides Limonene occur at lower concentrations, their role in creating the scent’s orange-ness may be equally as important. Smell is a holistic perceptual phenomenon, after all.

Dubois D (2007). From Psychophysics to Semiophysics: Categories as Acts of Meaning, a Case Study from Olfaction and Audition, Back to Colors. In: Speaking of Colors and Odors, Converging Evidence in Language and Communication Research 8, ed. M Plumacher M & P Holz, pp. 168-184. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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