What’s that lovely smell?

by Kate Woodford

As adult humans, we can distinguish about 10,000 different smells. It’s no wonder, then, that we have so many words and expressions to describe them. This week we’re taking a look at those smell words – words that describe good smells and words that describe bad smells.

Most smell words are either positive or negative. ‘Smell’ itself, however, can be either good or bad, depending on the words around it. ‘I love the smell of baking bread.’ is perfectly possible, as is It’s a horrible smell, like rotten eggs.’ Interestingly, without an adjective before it, or some other information, it seems usually to refer to a bad smell: Have you noticed the smell in the bathroom?/I can’t get rid of the smell. The derived adjective smelly, meanwhile, is always bad: smelly feet/smelly socks.

Staying with bad smell words, then, (and there are more of these than good smell words), if something stinks, or reeks, its smells very strongly of something unpleasant: Eww, whose trainers are these? They stink!/The whole house reeks of smoke. ‘Stink’, and less commonly, ‘reek’ are also nouns: There’s a real stink coming from the wash basin. (Note that ‘stink’ in both verb and noun forms is slightly informal.) The derived, informal adjective stinky is defined in most dictionaries as ‘having a very strong and unpleasant smell’, though, funnily enough, it’s often used quite admiringly of strong-smelling cheeses: The World’s Top Ten Stinky Cheeses. Whiffy, an informal, British adjective, is always negative: He hasn’t had a bath for a couple of days and he’s starting to get a bit whiffy. There is also a noun whiff, though this can be neutral. It is often used in the phrase catch a whiff or get a whiff: I caught/got a whiff of aftershave as he walked past. The noun stench, meanwhile, refers to a very strong, unpleasant smell: the unmistakable stench of rotting flesh.

Moving on to specific bad smells, a pungent smell is very strong and sharp: the pungent whiff of goat’s cheese. An acrid smell is strong and bitter, causing a burning taste or feeling in the throat: Clouds of acrid smoke rose from the building. Fetid means ‘smelling extremely bad and stale’: Inside the cave, the air was fetid. Musty is a little similar, but less strong, describing the slightly unpleasant smell of something that is old and rather damp: musty old library books. Putrid, meanwhile, means ‘smelling of decay’: the putrid smell of rotten meat.

And so to nice smells: An aroma is a strong but pleasant smell, usually coming from food or drink: the aroma of freshly baked bread. We also use the derived adjective aromatic, often for the sort of food and drink in which taste and smell seem combined: aromatic teas, such as Earl Grey. Scent is similar to ‘aroma’: Both products have a lovely scent. The noun fragrance and the adjective fragrant are also used for sweet, pleasant smells and are associated with flowers: This flower is noted for its delicate fragrance./fragrant herbs. The noun bouquet, meanwhile, is quite specialised, being the characteristic smell of a wine or liqueur: a dry white wine from the Umbria region, with a fruity bouquet and intense flavour.

Finally, there is a useful phrasal verb associated with smells. Something that produces a smell is often said to give off a smell: The iron gives off a strange smell when it’s heating up.

9 thoughts on “What’s that lovely smell?

  1. Useful classroom material; being an English teacher in The Netherlands, helping students to develop an awareness for the fine distinctions between nouns and adjectives is a serious C2 activity.
    Often we will then find ourselves in the field of socio-linguistics here, or perhaps even the mire of socio-linguistics.
    Your approach makes sure there is always a helping hand to drag us out.

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