An article in the January 26 issue of the Economist (may require subscription) may go a long way to explaining what goes on here at WB day in, day out. It’s about a study on humans’ ability to describe smells. The bottom line: Most of us suck at it.
The study, by Asifa Majid at Radboud University in the Netherlands and Nicole Kruspe at Lund University in Sweden, compared members of the Jahai tribe in Malaysia to a group of Americans.
[When Majir] asked some Jahai, and also a comparable group of American volunteers, to name colours and odours they were presented with, the Americans generally agreed with one another when it came to naming colours but agreed much less when putting names to odours. When presented with cinnamon, for example, they described it variously as sweet, spicy, wine, candy, edible and potpourri. When presented with baby powder they offered vanilla, wax, baby oil, toilet paper, dentist office, hand lotion, rose and bubble gum as descriptions. Jahai answers, in contrast, were in equal agreement about both odours and colours.
Sound familiar? (FYI, a Dutch control group in an earlier study did badly, too.)
The study suggested the disparity in the two groups might be due to the vocabularies of their respective languages, which in turn may reflect the difference in ways of life:
… because the Jahai have a dozen words dedicated to describing different sorts of smells in the abstract (the equivalent of colour-words such as red, blue, black and white, of which there are generally reckoned to be 11 in English). For example, the Jahai use the word “cŋεs” for stinging sorts of smells associated with petrol, smoke and various insects, and “plʔeŋ” for bloody, fishy and meaty sorts of smells. According to Dr Majid, only “musty” is able to act in this way in English without drawing on analogy (banana-like, gooseberry-noted, and even earthy and sweet-smelling, are all analogies of some sort).
The speculation is that hunter-gatherers have to be more attuned to smells in order to survive, and thus have a richer, more differentiated way of describing them than those of us who are more “civilized.” As The Economist put it in a 2015 story about a prior study by Majid:
This finding challenges the long-standing idea that something about the way human brains are wired limits their ability to put words to smells swiftly. Dr Majid says that in the West, “nothing should have a smell unless you put it there,” and that there are many taboos surrounding talking about odours. The smell-rich environment, scent-centric cultural practices and evident lack of taboos enjoyed by the Jahai and Maniq are, she believes, correlated with their recall and use of smell-related words.
It squares with my experience that people in the wine trade who have tasted around other, experienced people are often much better at describing things precisely (they say things to which I say, “That’s it! I couldn’t put my finger on it”) and also tend to concur more on what wines taste and smell like. In other words, you can with training/experience improve your ability to describe smells in a way that will agree with other experienced people.