Scent and sensibility: our obsession with odour
1st November, 2002
We are obsessed with our odour. We slavishly scrub off all that makes us distinct as members of a species, and then spray ourselves liberally with a homogenous fug of the latest mass-marketed musk. Jeremy Smith wonders why
When two members of the Ongee meet, they don’t inquire after each others’ health, but ask instead: ‘How is your nose?’ Living on the Andaman Islands, out in the Indian Ocean, the Ongee universe is defined by smell.
The passing of the year is marked by the scents of differing flowers as they come into bloom, and while a Westerner may touch their chest (the nearest point to the heart) when talking about themselves, the Ongee touch the tips of their noses.
Our desensitised world
In our industrialised world, smell is generally seen as the basest of the senses. Ever since the scientific revolutions of the 18th century, smell has been dismissed as over-emotional and a threat to the ideal of detached, rational thinking. And while we take pride in our rich English vocabulary, when it comes to describing smells the most often used word is ‘smelly’.
A glance at Roget’s Thesaurus reveals not only how sparse our language is when trying to describe smells, but also how weighted it is towards negatives – ‘stink’, ‘reek’, ‘pong’, ‘stale’, ‘rank’ and ‘foul’. Intriguingly, for...
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