Scent Words

Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2011)

It’s been exam revision season here in Cambridge, so I have received a barrage of practice essays and queries on many different topics. One of these pricked my conscience on the issue of olfactory language. Last summer I wrote a little flurry of posts about the language of smell, which came to its first end here, took a twist here, and revived slightly here. A student quoted part of Holly Dugan’s book that asserted considerable richness in the English language of scent in Shakespeare’s time:

Early Modern men and women had distinct ways to speak about perfume and its effects, with words that described the effects of perfume, incense, and scent in religious, medicinal, and sexual experiences. Objects ambered, civited, expired, fetored, halited, resented, and smeeked; they were described as breathful, embathed, endulced, gracious, halited, incensial, odorant, pulvil, redolent, and suffite. Scent descriptions included marechal (cherry), naphe (orange), thymiama (incense), and suffiments (general terms for medicinal scents), and they existed as diapasms, powders, sainses, smokes, water and balms. (p. 5)

There are some alluring words in the list, and I looked quite a few up. The one that surprised me was the olfactory sense of ‘resent’. OED: ‘to give off, exhale (a perfume); to have an odour or suggestion of (something)… to smell of; to be characteristic or suggestive of (a person or thing)… to smell out; to detect, to perceive’. I didn’t know this. I had no idea. Now the OED is nothing if not generous-spirited. It puts ‘obs[cure]’ and ‘rare’, so we don’t feel too bad. In my case, though, faced with quite a long list of references from the 17th century, which I am supposed to know about, I’m afraid I do feel a bit bad.
      It can’t be a surprise to readers that in this blog I am often scratching the surface of the topics I tackle, or sharing with readers the delight of finding out that there is lots to know out there. The language of smell is a rich and complex topic. In spite of scientists’ suggestions that olfaction and eloquence might not work well together (see those earlier posts), cultures have proved tenacious in developing a language fit for purpose.

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