How to Make Sense of Scents

How to Make Sense of Scents(sent)

Can language ever capture the mysterious(məˈstirēəs) world of smells?

By Rachel Syme

My obsession(əbˈseSHən) with perfume(ˈpərˌfyo͞om) began when I was around ten years old, spritzing(sprits) on layer after layer of my mother’s Anaïs Anaïs and Poison(ˈpoiz(ə)n), until I reeked of a duty-free store. It continued through my mall-rat(rat) teen-age years, when I blew through my babysitting tips at Bath & Body Works, convinced that I could amplify(ˈampləˌfī) my personality with a generous dose of Sun-Ripened(ˈrīpən) Raspberry(ˈrazˌberē). Throughout my twenties, I collected hundreds of fragrance(ˈfrāɡrəns) samples, bought for less than five dollars apiece(əˈpēs) from Web sites with names like the Perfumed Court and Surrender to Chance. Tiny glass vials(ˈvī(ə)l) of liquid(ˈlikwid) tuberose(ˈt(y)o͞obəˌrōs) regularly spilled(spil) out of my coat pockets. So when an editor at a newspaper for which I occasionally wrote about hair and beauty trends asked me if I had anything to say about perfume, I told her I did. I assumed that the main requisite(ˈrekwəzət) for the task was personal experience, not technical expertise(ˌekspərˈtēz); surely I already had the vocabulary(vōˈkabyəˌlerē) for detailing the scentscapes I’d been wandering for years. I knew I loved the smell of violets(ˈvī(ə)lət)—their chalky(ˈCHôkē), chocolate undertones. Or I thought I knew. Sitting down at my keyboard, I began to waver. Was it more like talcum(ˈtalkəm) powder and linden(ˈlindən) honey? Or like a Barbie(ˈbärbē)-doll(däl) head sprinkled(ˈspriNGk(ə)l) with lemonade(ˌleməˈnād)?

Talking about smells can feel a little like talking about dreams—often tedious(ˈtēdēəs), rarely satisfying. The olfactory(älˈfakt(ə)rē) world is more private(ˈprīvit) than we may think: even when we share space, such as a particularly ripe(rīp) subway car, one commuter(kəˈmyo͞odər) may describe eau d’armpit(ˈärmˌpit) as sweet Gorgonzola(ˌɡôrɡənˈzōlə) cheese, another will detect rotting(rät) pumpkin(ˈpəm(p)kən), and a third a barnyardy(ˈbärnˌyärd), cayenne(ˌkāˈ(y)en) tang(taNG). What surprised me is that using phrases(frāz) like “barnyardy, cayenne tang” is a perfectly valid(ˈvaləd), even preferred, way to write about nasal(ˈnāzəl) experiences.