SMELL OR SCENT?

In my mind, smells are stronger than scents. But both are valuable to writers—and to those who just want to be aware of their surroundings. 

Writers are urged to use sensory details. By and large, hands, eyes and ears are often used but noses less so. This in spite of the fact that psychology tells us that the sense of smell may be the most impressionable sense—the one most likely to evoke memories or moods.

It’s also important for survival, especially smells like smoke or rotten food. Researchers have hypothesized that pregnant women’s morning sickness may be a result of a heightened sense of smell developed as a temporary defense measure.

Researchers have used math to give system and order to odors, though they can’t seem to agree on the system and order.

According to one lab, there are eight basic scents:

  • Floral
  • Fruit-like
  • Synthetic
  • Citrus
  • Green-vegetative
  • Woody
  • Spice
  • Rotten
Very different categories used by fragrance companies

Other researchers name ten basic scents:

  • Woody/resinous
  • Lemon
  • Non-citrus fruity
  • Chemical
  • Minty/peppermint
  • Sweet
  • Popcorn
  • Pungent
  • Decayed

Interesting as these categorizations might be—especially the little overlap between these two sets—people are likely to think of odors on totally different dimensions. Much of the work on odors stems from the 1980s work of psychologist William Cain, at Yale University.

Of course, marketers have found ways to capitalize on our associations with various scents. Listerine was used as a floor cleaners until the manufacturers started a campaign of social shaming against halitosis and added a “minty-fresh” scent. Laundry detergent, floor soap, toothpaste, pet food, trash bags, tea, and just about anything else you can think of has chemically added fragrances so consumers will associate the product with pleasant memories.

Shopping malls and amusement parks pipe various scents into the air at specific locations to encourage spending or guide traffic flow. Grocery stores often position bakeries or flower shops just inside the entrance so that shoppers are bombarded with smells of fresh flowers or baking bread (both departments often run at an individual loss).

FeelReal headset prototype

Film and game makers have tried to cash in on this as well, with mixed results. Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama were attempts to rig cinemas to release scents in time with scene changes in a movie. (This was not very successful.) Virtual reality developers are toying with the possibilities of headsets surrounding players with the smells of a video game as well as the sights and sounds.

Words that describe pleasant smells
  • Ambrosial
  • Aromatic
  • Bouquet
  • Delicious
  • Floral 
  • Fresh 
  • Fragrant

  • Perfumed
  • Rich
  • Savory
  • Scented
  • Sweet
  • Tangy
Words that describe unpleasant smells
  • Acrid
  • Damp
  • Fetid
  • Frowsty
  • Malodorous
  • Musty
  • Musky
  • Nasty
  • Nauseating
  • Noisome 
  • Overpowering
  • Pungent
  • Putrid
  • Rancid
  • Rank
  • Ripe
  • Sickly
  • Smelly
  • Sour
  • Stale
  • Stench
  • Stinking
  • Stuffy
Things that smell bad
  • Trashcans
  • Drains
  • Body odor
  • Sewage
  • Vomit
  • Spoiled milk
  • Rotting food
  • Public toilets
  • Diapers
  • Fish
  • Exhaust fumes
  • Blood
  • Open intestinal wounds
  • Rotten teeth
  • Old exercise shoes
  • Bleach
  • Manure
  • Morning breath
  • Plastic burning
  • Garlic breath
  • Bleu cheese
  • Locker rooms
  • Diapers
  • Wet dogs
  • Mildew
  • Old eggs
  • Nail polish
  • Mothballs
Newborns’ feet don’t stink too badly. Usually.
Favorite smells 

(At least in Great Britain, according to a Daily Mail poll)

  • Freshly baked bread
  • Bacon
  • Freshly cut grass
  • Leather
  • Cakes baking in the oven
  • The seaside
  • Freshly washed clothes
Live Christmas trees
  • Roses
  • Vanilla
  • Scented candles
  • Log fires
  • Lavender
  • Lemon
  • Chocolate
  • Barbecue
  • Cinnamon
  • Sunday roast
  • New car
  • Orange
  • Freshly washed hair
  • Coconut
  • Freshly cleaned house
  • Leather
  • Rain
  • Aftershave
  • Christmas cake
Coffee
  • Cotton
  • Shampoo
  • Cherry
  • New carpets
  • Marzipan
  • Musk
  • Popcorn
  • Furniture polish
  • Wine
  • New house 
  • Fresh flowers
  • New books
  • Lime
  • Doughnuts
  • Bonfires
  • Sun screen
  • Tea
  • Fish and chips
  • Cheese
  • Cookies
  • Gasoline
  • Matches
  • Strawberries
  • Lilies
Babies
  • NOTE: What one person finds pleasant might be unpleasant to another. Several of these “favorite smells” also appear in lists of unpleasant odors, such as fish and bleu cheese.
Words that smell like something
  • Citrusy
  • Coppery
  • Earthy
  • Fishy
  • Flowery
  • Fruity
  • Gamy
  • Garlicky
  • Leathery
  • Lemony
  • Medicine
  • Minty
  • Musky
  • Peachy
  • Smoky
The Perfume Makers by Rudolf Ernst
Words that modify smells
  • Aromatic
  • Cloying
  • Comforting
  • Delicate
  • Evocative
  • Faint
  • Heady
  • Heavy
  • Intoxicating
  • Laden
  • Piquant
  • Powerful
  • Redolent 
  • Reek
  • Savory
  • Whiff
Tasty
  • And if it has no smell: anosmic 
Name that scent!

Maybe, for the sake of efficiency (and word count) you want to evoke a smell with as few words as possible. If so, you might look for the world’s most recognizable smells—these according to Buffalo, NY radio WYRK.

  • Baby powder
  • Banana
  • Beer
  • Beach 
  • Cheese
  • Chocolate
  • Cigarette butts
  • Cinnamon
  • Clean laundry
  • Coffee
  • Crayons 
  • Dry cat food
  • Freshly mowed lawn
  • Gasoline 
  • Ivory soap
  • Juicy Fruit gum
  • Lemon 
  • Mothballs
  • Orange 
  • Peanut butter
  • Skunk
  • Thanksgiving turkey 
  • Tuna 
  • Vicks VapoRub
  • Wintergreen oil

Note: Women are generally far superior to men in identifying smells, even such “male-leaning”  smells like motor oil. In Cain’s work, women outperformed men in 66 of 80 trials.

Bottom line for writers: The nose knows—and now you do, too!

Body Awareness

 
When writers write human sensations, they typically rely on the basic five: sight (vision), hearing (audition), taste (gustation), smell (olfaction), and touch (somatosensation). Everyone since Aristotle has recognized these. But relying on these is over-simplification.

 

In fact, humans have a multitude of sensors. The ability to detect other stimuli beyond those governed by these most broadly recognized senses also exists, and these sensory modalities include temperature (thermoception), kinesthetic sense (proprioception), pain (nociception), balance (equilibrioception), vibration (mechanoreception), and various internal stimuli (e.g. the different chemoreceptors for detecting salt and carbon dioxideconcentrations in the blood, or sense of hunger and sense of thirst).
What constitutes a sense is a matter of debate, leading to difficulties in defining what exactly a distinct sense is, and where the borders lie between responses to related stimuli. Today, a conservative list of senses numbers 10 and the generally accepted list includes 21. The radical list identifies at least 33.
 
But as writers, we don’t have to worry about exact numbers and labels. We just need to develop a keener body awareness for our characters.
 
 
One of my personal favorites is proprioception, the sense that gives you the ability to tell where your body parts are in relation to other body parts and the environment. Being able to close your eyes and touch your nose is one example—a skill that is impaired when drunk, BTW.
 
I first really though about this sense when I read what John McPhee said about Bill Bradley, back in the day when Bill Bradley was a basketball superstar. McPhee was particularly impressed that Bradley, back to the basket, could look him in the eye, hold a conversation, and toss a basketball over his shoulder and make the shot.
 
 
Bradley: “When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this….You develop a sense of where you are.”
 
Any character who is athletic would have a highly developed sense of body awareness. The opposite of Bill Bradley is the character who is forever bumping her/his head, tripping, knocking into things, etc.
 
Choose any sense and have a character who is characterized by an extreme of that sense. For example, tea, wine, or coffee tasters; acrobats; inability to feel pain or temperature; etc.
 
Numerous studies have shown that people do have the ability to detect accurately the passage of time, without counting or anything like that: on average, 18 to 24 year olds could tell when 3 minutes were up within a 3 second margin. And perhaps more interesting, our sense of time slows down with age, so that 60-80 year olds, on average, thought that 3 minutes had passed at around 3 minutes and 40 seconds! Again, this might be more useful for people on either extreme from the average. FYI, people with Parkinson’s or ADD have very poor sense of time passage compared to “normal” people.
numbers in color
Synesthesia is, essentially, when our sensory wires get crossed. Such people hear or taste color, for example. Although some people experience this naturally, it is more common under the influence of hallucinogens.

 

BOTTOM LINE: Do a little reading online about human senses to develop awareness of how these can enhance your writing!