What Does a Word Smell Like?
During nearly every class I have students smell three or four plants — depending upon the season — and I ask them what common food each plant smells like. I also add a hint, such as “what salad ingredient does it smell like?” or “what nut does it smell like?” I find the exercise interesting in two ways.
First is the fact that few ever guess right the first time. And one can tell some of the guesses are inductive such as naming salad ingredients by descending percentages starting with lettuce. But the more interesting part is the aroma recognition when you tell them the name. Their faces light up, they make a connection, and you hear “yes, that’s what it smells like.”
You have to wonder what is going on. Smelling a fragrance is a concrete act. Chemicals meet sensors, an electrical pulse is sent to a particular part of the brain and the memory of the aroma is in there or it is not. Complex enough but putting a word to that memory. Probably only humans do that and perhaps that is the most difficult task. Except for a few words that sound like a sound — oink, tick tick tick, squeal — words are quite abstract. The combination of sounds used to represent any particular thing can be as varied as possible, as any student of languages can attest.
It is the searching around for the abstract sound for the concrete aroma that seems to be the difficult part. As scent is often part of the proper identification of an edible — or a toxic — it makes one wonder how dependable that function is. That is why I try to make my descriptions rather specific.
“Kudzu in bloom smells like a classroom full of second graders all chewing cheap, sweet, imitation grape bubble gum.” Or, “the Bitter Gourd leaf smells like an athletic shoe that been in the bottom of a wet high school gym locker for a year.”
Maybe I’m making the task more difficult when I am trying to be very specific. In an abstract description are ten words really better than one or do they help find the memory? Perhaps worse I build on the abstraction: “It is only one of two plants locally that smell like cucumber, it is one of two plants locally that smell like an old gym shoe.”
What Does A New Plastic Shower Curtain Taste Like … Exactly?
Suggestion can be quite powerful.
Almonds and cherries can smell quite alike depending whether you have been told they smell like almonds or cherries. This is rather important in that unless you have an almond in your hand the smell of almonds in the wild is usually cyanide, best avoided.
Then there are genes. There is a particular plant here in Florida whose fruit is difficult to find because the woodland creatures like it. But people who have found it disagree on its taste and aroma. Some say it tastes and smells like pink, baseball bubble gum. Some say it has no taste or flavor at all. Or (go with me here) some say it tastes and smells like a new plastic shower curtain. (What a new shower curtain tastes like is a bit difficult to imagine.)
One plant (the gopher apple) three tastes and flavors. There can be consensus on an aroma, or a diversity of opinions. In the end how do we know we are all smelling the same smell or putting the proper word to it?
Apples Might Smell Like Steak
One of my uncles on my mother’s side was married twice. His second wife was a walking genetic time bomb. All of her five children had some genetic problem or another, from mild to serious, or passed them on.
One of those cousins was well into his teens before they discovered he was color blind. The problem was he saw all the colors just in different places. Live trees are red to him, dead ones are green et cetera.
When someone said green he saw red but called it green and didn’t know any difference. Thus his color blindness hid well. The discovery of his situation came when his mother told him one day to go to the garden and pick some ripe tomatoes. He came in with all green ones.
Perhaps peoples’ noses are the same. They smell an apple but perceive steak, and abstract words just make it worse.
Your Opinion Smells
The sense of smell is like an opinion, everyone has one and it can vary greatly.
Not everyone smells the same, so to say, nor does my nose speak for all.
Now I tell my students “this is what it smells like to me.” I am not concerned what abstract word is placed on a particular aroma. I don’t care what they call it, as long as they recognize it.