Friday, 5 December 2014

How Do You Describe A Smell?

One of the things that fascinates me about the fragrance community is how everyone describes how something smells. Combining this with my obsession with language I wanted to make a post about how people describe fragrances and how effective the methods are.

We are going to get a little bit philosophical now, hold on to your hats (or pipes)...

The Treachery of Images

The above picture says "This is not a pipe"

It is a picture of a pipe.

The artist famously said in response to those who said it is a pipe "Could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation."

And that's what I'm doing here, creating representations of an experience.

Nothing can replace the direct experience of a scent yet that is what I attempt to do through writing about fragrance.

There's a few ways I have noticed to write about perfume -

Listing the Notes

This is the driest form of writing, it does not add to the experience but may be useful if someone wants to know the composition. It's the equivalent of saying "This carbonara contains cream, egg, garlic."


"It opens with a large burst of citrus and pepper that wriggle around each other, oscillating between sharp lemons and paprika before slinking into the body of the scent after a half hour"

Writing like this describes the notes, in this case lemon and pepper, but gives them life and allows a more vivid imagining to be created by the reader.


To take this style to it's next natural step is to develop a metaphor; that means describing the scent by talking about something else.

One easy way to generate a metaphor about something is to ask what kind of person that thing would be.

I like it when smells are described through metaphor and include movement and space. It helps me better imagine something and also to remember it. A lot of the time it is amusing to hear people's metaphors too.

Here's an example -

"The lemon leaps to the foreground like a bold knight gleaming on his horse and begins to duel the peppery dragon as the two clash and erupt letting furls of sparkling lemon and dark peppery dust fall to the floor around them."

Now is there really a lemon knight and a pepper dragon? No, but in describing this scene you now understand that the lemon and pepper are against each other rather than harmonious and that they battle over centre stage for the place of most prominent note.

Hopefully you see my point? Metaphor can help describe direct experience.

If I can create such imagery from the smell then I think in the details of the metaphor I will be better able to convey the nuances of a fragrance.
Also I find it fun!


Sometimes a smell is like a known object. Familiar and common objects obviously work best, for example a supple leather handbag, a freshly squeezed lemon, roasted coffee beans, or a bottle of rum, rather than "My friend's jumper"


Our sense of smell is the most evocative sense; it can transport us immediately through our past in our minds to a remembered time and place.
Universal experience is easy to reference and relate to, for example-

"It smells like walking through a forest after it has rained"
I think we have all walked through a forest in the rain. But sometimes it can remind me of something very specific to my own past like-

"It smells like the kitchen when mother made soup in winter" 

These can be harder to translate to the reader who did not have the same "mother soup" experience as I did. However they do allow me to share something more intimate and personal from my past and I often like reading people's unique scent memories.

Comparison and Scales

Comparison to other scents can also be used but is only useful if the person reading it had smelt the other scents! So in one review I talked about leather on a scale and mentioned other fragrances to help people gauge how "leathery" the smell was.
If people don't know the other scents then the scale is harder to imagine. However to describe it without using other frags as comparison can also work, by simply saying things like "lighter end of the leather spectrum" and you get some idea of where it would be.

Subjective Judgments

It smells great, wonderful, brilliant, or it smells terrible, vile, disgusting.
Whilst such words can certainly convey your own judgement on the fragrance and may encourage or discourage others to smell it they tell us little about the scent itself other than your reaction. Nothing wrong with this, I regularly exclaim how much I enjoy a fragrance, it helps add personality to the review and lets people know what you actually think about the smell.

Situation or Context

Office friendly, date-night, hot summer daytime.
These categories already exist for many people and will come with many associations, it can help categorise the scent in your mind if someone says it is a wedding day fragrance as opposed to a rainy-day at home one. Again, my "rainy-day" scent could be your "wedding day" (I hope it doesn't rain on your wedding)


"Expensive, cheap, powerful, confident, reserved, sexy, mature."
These can be tricky because what smells "confident and sexy" to one person may smell "cheap and lacking" to another.

Putting it all together

I asked some people to describe "Fragrance X" and this was their response-

"A very powdery, sweet lipsticky scent...classy"
"Iris, lipstick note, with traces of cocoa. it turns powdery but still smells sexy. black tie or date fragrance."
 "The floral sobriety of iris paired with the deep, sensual accords of cocoa, leather, and lavender. A modernist take on old-fashioned masculine fragrance."
Can you recognise the different styles of description?
They are all effective at giving some idea of the fragrance, once you know the scent the brief first one is sufficient and accurate, the second one gives situational examples and a context to it whilst the final one combines multiple methods to convey the scent as a whole.

-Fragrance X is Dior Homme and if you know it, how would you describe it?

But...That pipe picture at the start... If nothing can replace simply smelling something, why bother?

Despair not, friend!

There is a greater purpose to this, in fact - many purposes.

Many Porpoises

- For me, it is a form of expression, I find that through discussing the scent in a review or with someone that I can better appreciate it and give it more form in my mind as well as discover new perspectives and understandings through such exploration.

- A knowledgeable description of a scent can enhance my experience of it. I first found this out when The Smelly Vagabond had me sniff something, then he talked about the notes. When I re-sniffed it it was like a totally different fragrance! I could better identify the pieces he told me to look for.

- You can get accurate descriptions of a scent that really resonate and make sense. I know this because when I read an online review and start nodding my head or a fragrance buddy will describe it in such a way that I go "Ooooh yeah!".

- The act of sharing such descriptions with others is enjoyable, by putting our individual experiences into form and sharing them with each other we are connecting more and I think that's a worthwhile endeavour.

I hope you have enjoyed this philosophical expedition, thanks for reading.


  1. very interesting and wish i could describe fragrances and the notes better,

    1. Thanks Alan.
      I notice when people describe notes effectively and why it is effective.
      Practice practice.

  2. It's an interesting topic, thank you for food for thought.

    Your "like a bold knight" example thought, I think, is a personification, not a metaphor. A metaphor would be something like: "This isn't a perfume, it's a bug spray!" or "In the opening this perfume is the Pine Sol Lady, who, as we learn during its development, also holds down the second job at the local Taco Bell."

    Not to split hairs, but in the example "opens with a large burst of citrus" the underlined word isn't a verb (or even a verbal noun, if I'm not mistaken).

    Still, fun post!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it.
      I get confused with all the categorisation and rules of language but hopefully the general idea came across.
      A metaphor is when you use one thing to talk about another.

    2. A metaphor is when you say/imply that one thing is another thing. But yes, in general I got your idea :)

  3. Good post, love this sharing so much, thank you!

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