Philobiblon: Eight words for smell

Friday, March 18, 2005

Eight words for smell

I finally got around to reading the second half of Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, which takes first a ethnographic turn, skipping across Asia, Africa and South America, before going sociological about the last century in the West. (See posts one and two for the earlier historical approach.)

In a way it was disappointing because I'd been expecting a clearer methodological and theoretical approach in this part of the book and it never came. Overall this book is a collection of anecdotes about smell from all parts of the world, with the thesis that smell is as much a cultural as a biological construct, but it never gets beyond its parts to make a real whole. If it was an undergraduate essay you'd say the sources were under-digested.

Nonetheless, they are good anecdotes.

* Quechua, the language spoken by the Incas and still used in the Andes, had at least eight words for the act of smelling, including ones for "to smell a good odour", "to smell a bad odour", "for a group to smell something together", "to let oneself be smelled," "to come across a food odour", a word that also meant "to inspire". (That word is camaycuni, BTW.) Smell was obviously important to the culture. (p. 112)

* For the Dogon of Mali, onion is the loveliest fragrance. Young men and women fry the plant in butter and rub the result all over their bodies as a perfume. (p. 124)

* European languages still contain a value-judgement of women by scent. The Spanish puta and the French putain, both meaning whore, are derived from the Latin for putrid. (p. 162)

* Halitosis was an old almost obsolete medical term when recovered by some bright advertising spark in the 1920s. Its succession in advertising Listerine mouthwash - company profits from $100,000 in 1920 to $4 million in 1927, led to the development of many other diseases, including "homotosis", the lack of attractive home furnishings, and "accelerator toe". (No it doesn't explain what that was, and Google couldn't help.) (p. 183-4)

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