Language is fossil poetry.
This is a story about scent, that strangest of our senses, which arises when a volatile chemical compound binds to a receptor in our nose and sends a signal through our olfactory system to the deepest seat of emotion, memory and learning in our brain.
But because this is also a story about poetry and vocabulary, we begin with language.
Language is also how we find precision.
For example, by increasing our vocabulary of emotion — learning more nuanced words for ‘anger’, say — we’re better able to distinguish between states of mind.
Are you feeling angry? Or are you feeling annoyed, apathetic, affronted, aggravated, antagonised, aggressive, appalled or apoplectic?
This is called emotional granularity and studies have shown that teaching people more words to describe their emotions can help them deal better with stress and trauma.
upon experiencing intense distress, individuals who experience their emotions with more granularity are less likely to resort to maladaptive self-regulatory strategies such as binge drinking, aggression, and self-injurious behavior; show less neural reactivity to rejection; and experience less severe anxiety and depressive disorders
Another great reason to keep reading books.
Having an impoverished vocabulary of emotion is such a serious condition that there’s even a medical name for it: alexithymia.
‘Language is fossil poetry’ is a line from The Poet, an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson based on a lecture he gave in 1842.
The essay encourages us to dig, like palaeontologists, into the etymology of words, so that we might uncover their metaphorical and poetic origins.
In 1972, Harvard psychiatrist Peter Emanuel Sifneos created the word alexithymia by smashing together a couple of Greek words.
According to Sifneos, being alexithymic means you have ‘no soul-speech’.
Listen now. What does your soul say?
The Poet Names The Thing
As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay:
the poet names the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other
The poet names the thing because he sees it. Or smells it.
I was cycling along the street earlier today, on my way to the post office to pick up a parcel of Rogue Welsh Cakes. (Maple and pecan? Shut UP!)
It had not long finished raining: the kind of May shower that scrubs the air clean and, as I cycled, the evaporating roads filled my nostrils with that wonderful, thirsty, humid scent I’ve learned to call —
I’m getting ahead of myself.
My reason for writing this story is because the English language, like most, lacks olfactory granularity.
As we’ve seen, English has many, many different words for the different gradations of anger. It’s up to us to learn them, identify them in ourselves, and use them appropriately so that we can live more contented lives.
But when it comes to smells, English simply doesn’t have the words.
As Ed Yong wrote in The Atlantic back in 2015:
In English, there are only three dedicated smell words — stinky, fragrant, and musty — and the first two are more about the smeller’s subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself.
That’s astonishing. But is it a bad thing?
You could say that quickly and accurately distinguishing between smells isn’t ‘saliant’ to our lives. It’s not life and death.
We can describe scent, more or less, by analogy and maybe saying that something smells salty, lemony or funky is good enough for us.
Once upon a time in the west, as research suggests, distinguishing scent more closely may well have been a matter of life and death, where pleasant perfumes identified nourishing food, healing medicine and cleanliness.
The case today for expanding our olfactory granularity rests on the same logic as that taken down by Robert Macfarlane in Landmarks, his paeon to ‘the power of language … to shape our sense of place’ and his attempt to release ‘its poetry back into imaginative circulation’.
Ammil: A Devon term for the fine film of silver ice that coats leaves, twigs and grass when freeze follows thaw.
Noticing and naming are the yin and yang of learning, the head and tail of the ouroboros of understanding.
Smeuse: Sussex dialect for the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal.
Who can say what ‘use’ such vocabulary has for its users?
But, as Macfarlane writes, their precision undoubtedly leaves us with ‘our attention re-focused, our sight freshly scintillated’.
And that can only be a good thing in my book slash newsletter.
Back To My Bike Ride…
As I cycled along, the evaporating roads filled my nostrils with that wonderful, thirsty, humid scent I’ve learned to call — yes — petrichor.
Petrichor: A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions.
Perhaps surprisingly, the term was only coined in 1964 by Isabel Bear and RG Thomas, two Australian researchers who discovered that a yellow-coloured oil could be extracted from dry, clay-based soils and rock.
Petrichor is the name they gave to the odour of that fatty elixir.
The oil is produced by plants during long dry spells and, in a follow-up paper published in 1965, Bear and Thomas showed that the oil significantly delays the germination and growth of various plants — presumably a defence mechanism until environmental conditions are more favourable.
These oils are absorbed from the plants into the soil and, when rain (preferably a light rain) finally hits the ground, the oils are released into the air and we all get to snort the wet scent of petrichor.
Again, the word is formed from Greek. Petros is the Greek word for stone (hence Peter, rock of the church) and ichor is the ancient word for the blood of the gods.
Petrichor draws the blood of the gods from a stone.
The poet names the thing and, in this case, we’re lucky that Isabel Bear was such a poet.
Funky Great Earth-Odour
But there’s more to that delicious post-rain stink than petrichor alone.
When rain hits soil, another molecule is released into the air, this one produced by bacteria living undergound: geosmin.
Geosmin: An organic compound with a strong earthy scent and flavour, produced especially by various microorganisms and largely responsible for the smell of damp soil.
It’s pronounced /dʒɪˈɒzmɪn/ or jee-OZ-min.
This is also a scientific neologism imagined into being by scientists in the mid sixties. This one, also of Greek origin, simply means earth-odour.
Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, describes the smell of geosmin as ‘funky-great’ and she’s not wrong: it gives beetroot its umami-earthy taste.
But when geosmin gets into the water supply, it’s just plain funky-bad. In fact, it’s what makes wine taste ‘corked’.
So there we have it: two words for distinctive earthy scents, followed back through the palaeontology of their fossilisation.
Maybe you’re shrugging your shoulders with a ‘so what’ look on your face. Maybe you already knew all about petrichor and geosmin.
In both cases, at least I’ve had a nice time.
But if you’re into this kind of thing, I’d love to hear your favourite smelly words — fancy scientific ones like I’ve written about here, ones stolen from other languages, or ones the poets made up long ago.
Let’s move towards a dictionary of scent.
The only one that’s lodged without budging from my schooldays is Ted Hughes’s ‘sudden sharp hot stink of fox’.
Please help me out!
The Earth-Shattering Finale
And so we come to the end of the story, where I wrap up my themes of poetry and the intellectual illumination that comes through noticing and naming.
Ideally this earth-shattering finale will come in a single flash-bulb image that encapsulates the whole in a moment of dazzling insight, leaving you with an awed sense of the power of the universe.
Sadly I don’t have that. What I’ve got instead is the following underwhelming anecdote.
On my way back from the post office, down the same street I had cycled earlier, I was dawdling behind a pedestrian when my eyes flicked right, caught by a flash of incongruous colour on the wall of an unremarkable Victorian house, glimpsed through a gap in a thick hedgerow.
(Not a smeuse — higher up, maybe a bird smeuse.)
It was a blue plaque — an honour reserved for only the most historic of British landmarks.
What was it doing here, in a quiet residential street round the back of Bournemouth train station?
I looked more closely:
Here Rupert Brooke (1888-1915) Discovered Poetry
Woah — poet and petrichor — On. The. Exact. Same. Street! What were the chances?
I told you it was underwhelming.
Before I botch this ending completely, allow me to make an orderly exit by leaving you with a few lines from one of Rupert Brooke’s less jinogistic poems, Tiare Tahiti:
Hear the calling of the moon,
And the whispering scents that stray
About the idle warm lagoon.
OH MY GAWD HE MENTIONS SCENTS.