Putting words to smells: an important part of smell training

Go up to any lipstick counter and take a look at the names of the lipsticks. Peony, Plum, Crimson, Nude. Velvet Teddy, Blankety, Ruby Woo. They quickly fall into two categories. Either the name reminds you of something else with the colour of red, pink, or nude. Or the name calls up an image of something else that has less to do with colour and more to do with a concept. But take a handful of lipsticks out onto the street and ask a passerby how they would describe that colour. They would probably say “well, they are red, pink, pinky beige. 

What is striking about this is that there is a vast vocabulary for some pretty limited colours, and a lot of thought has gone into the naming process. For people who don’t know the ins and outs of lipstick naming, we fall back on some simple descriptives for these shades. If you don’t need this huge vocabulary for colour naming, you just use the few words you know. It’s the same with our sense of smell. What does this perfume smell like to you? “oh, sort of flowery and fruity”? 

Rewind to my residential week-long perfumery course that I took in 2014. One of our first exercises was to try to throw out words to describe a perfume we were smelling. At another course I took some time later, we were asked this question: if this perfume were a person, who would it be? If it was a day, what would that day be like? In both cases, a simple sentence answer would not do. Paragraphs had to be written, there was no right or wrong. These two experiences in perfumery illustrate a couple of points important in smell training. 

You really need to dig deep, and practice, to strengthen your ability to think broadly about smell naming. I say “strengthen”, because I think that like any task, if you work at it, you get better. A bit like weight training. Before I lost my sense of smell, a perfume was a great big showy singularity, tied to memories, giving an impression--good or bad. A single thing. Just one compact smell experience. Like flipping through the radio stations, if I got to a station playing a song I didn’t like, I just moved on. A perfume I didn’t like was just one, well, I didn’t like, and I never considered why that might be. Or why I liked others.

Four and a half years on, I have honed my understanding of smell, and I recognise all kinds of individual ingredients in all smells, not just perfume. This has come from training, and trying. Trying to recognise the differences, looking for the layers in a smell. Now when I step into the perfume department, instead of getting those single nose experiences from each perfume (the songs on the radio in my analogy), I hear those pieces of music pulled apart. I hear the piano, the different instruments, the percussion line. Now each smell I experience is a more layered experience.

My point here is that until I lost my sense of smell, I had no experience in considering it. I had just never thought enough about the constituent parts, and I certainly couldn’t name them.

Building smell vocabulary is something I want to develop more for the members of this page. I hope you will join me.