Words are weird (aka how to become better at smelling and emotional intelligence)

My last post was about sentences that made me laugh out loud. This post has to do with a sentence that made me gasp out loud.

From What Can Covid-19 Teach Us About the Mysteries of Smell? (The New York Times)

How fully did smell disappear? (Smell loss is known as anosmia when it’s complete, and hyposmia when it’s partial.)

There it was, tucked into a parenthetical aside, as if it wasn’t the greatest word in the greatest sentence in the whole essay: anosmia! Uh-NAHZ-mee-uh.

Loss of sight is blindness. Loss of hearing is deafness. Loss of speech is muteness. And now, I know that loss of smell is anosmia.

I have a memory from when I was younger of asking someone why there wasn’t a word for when you couldn’t smell. So reading that sentence, I experienced a feeling I’ve never had before and will most likely not have again: I found a word I had wanted to find for years but didn’t even know existed.

Writing this, I have a new question to ask. Why didn’t I just search up “what is it called when you can’t smell”?

Apparently, human noses aren’t astronomically worse than other creatures’. We’re average—“Humans are solidly ‘in the middle of the pack.’” We don’t lack the ability to smell lots of scents, but what we are missing is the language to talk about them.

We may not be bad at smelling, but we are bad at putting what we smell into words.

And when I say the English language is missing olfactory words, I mean that English is really missing them.

From Why Do Most Languages Have So Few Words For Smells? (The Atlantic)

Every sense has its own “lexical field,” a vast palette of dedicated descriptive words for colors, sounds, tastes, and textures. But smell? In English, there are only three dedicated smell words—stinky, fragrant, and musty—an the first two are more about the smeller’s subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself.

(Emphasis mine.)

When I read this the first time, I was skeptical. And I’m still skeptical now. Three words? In the entire English language, which possibly contains over a million words? There’s no way. I tried to mentally disprove it, but I couldn’t it. All my attempts were words that describe both smells and tastes.

These two articles I referenced make the same conclusion about the connection between smells and language.

From What Can Covid-19 Teach Us About the Mysteries of Smell? (The New York Times)

Being able to describe and discuss what we smell helps us smell it better.

From Why Do Most Languages Have So Few Words For Smells? (The Atlantic)

“Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language.” And if you have the right language, it changes the way you perceive the world.

Having more words related to smells doesn’t improve our noses, but it does improve our brains’ interpretations of what our noses are smelling. Having more words would help us smell more and smell better because of the fundamental way language changes our thoughts.

There’s a term called “emotional granularity,” created by psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett. It means being more specific when describing how you feel. Instead of happy, it’s contentment plus pleasantly surprised.

Lisa Feldman Barrett writes:

You’ve probably never thought about learning words as a path to greater emotional health, but it follows directly from the neuroscience of construction.

Learning more smell words makes us better smellers, and learning more emotion words makes us healthier emotionally (and she argues that as a result, it makes us healthier physically too).

Words are so weirdly powerful. These random sounds with meanings we constructed have the ability to impact our physical sensations by just existing in our brains. To me, it feels like absolute magic—but Feldman Barrett would very much disagree.

Words seed your concepts, concepts drive your predictions, predictions regulate your body budget (which is how your brain anticipates and fulfills your body’s energy needs), and your body budget determines how you feel…This is not magic; it’s what happens when you leverage the porous boundary between the social and the physical.

(Emphasis mine.)

I think spelling tests are a pretty common phenomenon in elementary schools. What if, along with words like vacation and crayon, kids learned words that expanded their emotional granularity vocabulary? Aha, just imagine—a six-year-old coming up to you and saying they feel “disappointed and slightly resigned” about their friend’s unkind behavior. But the imaginary scenario I’m most interested in is what happens when all those kids grow up. How would the world be different if that happened?

Some people would probably say it wouldn’t be that different, that knowing how to talk about your feelings is not going to solve huge, complicated, real-world problems. But what has been shown is that emotional granularity can help solve the problems we have right around us. For example, when I searched “emotional granularity,” this was on the first page of results: Emotional Granularity Saved My Marriage.

My biggest conclusion from writing this post is that words are weird. And so cool. I’m going to try and learn some more emotion words and maybe try creating some terms of my own. As for the smell front, hopefully people will create some words soon.

What do you think of the idea of “emotional granularity”?
Do you know of any smell words??

Does describing emotions come easily to you?
Do you have favorite made-up words or words from other languages that you use to describe what you feel? (Thank you, Jai Lynn, for telling me about “l’appel du vide.” :))

4 thoughts on “Words are weird (aka how to become better at smelling and emotional intelligence)”

  1. Okay, I definitely read this as “become better at smelling emotional intelligence” the first time. Which, is intriguing, certainly, but it makes more sense now that I see what it actually says. 😉
    Wow, so this post is so cool! I had never thought about how few dedicated smell words there are, but now that you point it out my mind is kind of blown. I have definitely pondered the influence of language in the way we think and behave, and I find that concept fascinating. The fact that there are different “holes” in different languages that are telling about cultural background has intrigued me for a while- but it’s interesting how there aren’t really any languages that have a wide range of smell words. I didn’t know that. The way that words help shape our thoughts is endlessly fascinating to me.


  2. What a title! And what a post to follow it!! I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about smell, so reading this really made me think. The concept of the ability to articulate our olfactory experiences actually helping us smell things better is fascinating. And so few words solely dedicated to smell?? My knee-jerk reaction was “That’s OBVIOUSLY not true–” but the more I think about it…I really can’t think of any other words that don’t also pertain to taste. What is this???
    The importance of being able to articulate your emotions is something I’ve been hearing about for a while, and I believe it’s incredibly important for relationships of all kinds. If we can communicate with each other with accuracy and specificity about our emotions, I think it can help us avoid a lot of misunderstandings and fights.


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