Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Smell/Odor/Aroma/Stink Test

Black and white retro photo of a balding man with suspenders, holding his nose and making a disgusted face
I found myself wondering recently whether the word odor has negative connotations or not. This led me to write a list of other nouns pertaining to that sense we exercise with our noses.

Not surprisingly, the positive words all have Latin and French roots, the negatives all have Old English and Germanic roots, and the neutrals (an etymological mixed bag) are losing their neutrality.

Positive nouns

Aroma – a distinctive, typically pleasant smell. From Latin aroma, sweet odor, and Greek aroma, sweet herb or seasoning.

Fragrance — a pleasant, sweet smell. From 1660s French fragrance, originally from Latin, fragrantia, sweet smelling, and the verb fragrare, to emit a sweet odor. (Plant lovers may know that the genus of strawberries is Fragaria.)

Scent — a distinctive smell, especially one that is pleasant. From Old French sentir, to perceive, to smell, originally the Latin verb sentire, to sense. First recorded as a noun in the 14th century, and originally a hunting term. The “c” was added in the 17th century. I tend to think of scent as a neutral term, but the dictionaries disagree with me.

Neutral nouns

Smell — odor or scent. Smell is the most neutral of all terms pertaining to this sense. Even so, it seems clear that it is easily tinged with negative connotations, as in “not passing the smell test.” No one says “not passing the aroma test,” or if they did, it would mean something different. The etymology of smell is definitely Old English, but its roots are not confirmed. Thought possibly to be from Middle Dutch, smolen, and Late German smelen, to smolder. Fun fact: the addition of a “y” to make the adjective smelly only dates from 1862.

Odor — a strong smell, especially one that is unpleasant or distinctive. Note that there’s a big difference there between unpleasant or distinctive; aroma is defined as being distinctive, too, but that’s a positive word. From Old French odor, smell, perfume, fragrance; derived from Latin odor, smell or scent. If odor is a negative word, why do we need the word malodorous? I blame the advertising copywriter who came up with the phrase body odor for destroying a perfectly good noun.

Negative nouns

Stench — a strong and very unpleasant smell. From Old English stenc, a smell (either pleasant or unpleasant). Related to stincan, see Stink.

Stink — a strong, unpleasant smell. From Old English stincan (verb), to emit a smell of any kind. Swote stincan, for instance, means to smell sweet, so clearly stincan had no negative connotations.

Reek — a foul smell. From Old English rec and West Saxon riec, smoke from burning material. Probably related to Old Norse reykr (think Reykjavik, which means smoky bay, based on the steam that arises from that city’s hot springs).

The pattern is clear: Latin and French-derived words have positive meanings, with the exception of odor, which was botched by mid-20th century advertisers, while Old English words that began as neutrals became negatives. Only reek began use with somewhat negative connotations (and the fact that it became a word reminds us of how pervasive wood smoke was for most of human history).

Etymological information based on etymonline.com


peppery said...

I wonder if odor could be modified more positively as "odiferous," which I always liked the sound of for completely unscholarly reasons it reminds me of coniferous, and thus delightful foresty, er, odors. (Unscholarly, too, since according to the online etymology dictionary, it's actually derived from a more unwieldy form.)

Just to muddy the waters, I always equate "Aroma" with the skunk from Homer Price. Good effort, Homer!

Michael Leddy said...

That pattern is interesting for sure. Reek makes me think of Shakespeare’s sonnet 130: “And in some perfumes is there more delight / Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.” In his edition of the sonnets, Stephen Booth points out that in S’s time, the verb reek could mean “breathe forth, emanate.” But, he adds, the word (as noun and verb) was already moving toward the idea of a foul smell.

The CAPTCHA below stinks! An out-of-focus photo of what must be a number.

Daughter Number Three said...

I love the word "odiferous," though I don't think I've ever used it. Odiferous vs. smelly -- I automatically know which one smells worse. Odiferous might mean onions or garlic, while smelly evokes dirty laundry, maybe even sewage.

Even "reek" in its origins wasn't exactly negative, as Michael's example shows. That idea of emanating is the original meaning.

Larry Wiggs said...

I had a class today and my students implored me to distinguish the difference between these words. I wasn't able to give them as much detail. However, my impromptu answers were pretty spot on.