Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

A Delicately Deodorized Word Bouquet

There's no nice way to put it: as we reach the peak of temperature and humidity levels in much of the northern hemisphere, we all too often find ourselves confronted by things — and yes, people — who smell. And even if we'd like to turn up our nose, for once let's take a giant whiff. Or at least an etymological one.

Words for things that are smelly often have interesting histories, because they are related to taboo subjects. And like those subjects themselves, their power and force emanates from — or, one might even say, is redolent of — their uncivilized nature.

We don't like to talk about it. In American English, using the verb smell without an object, as in "What smells?" is an accusation, implying that something really powerful and unpleasant, something we would rather not dignify by naming, is perfuming the air. (The answer to the question "What smells?" is almost never "Roses.") A similar elision occurs in American English when the verb drink occurs without an object — the dreaded alcohol can only be assumed. An insistence that "I don't drink" is not a protestation that one doesn't imbibe liquids in general or that one takes them intravenously, it is a culturally acceptable expression of one's status as a teetotaler

Even though we often do know perfectly well what we are smelling, when we do decide to name it, we'll more likely softshoe it with something like funky, rather than naming the odor point blank. And although it may depress you if you are surrounded by funky smells all the time, the two uses of the word funk, "depression" and "bad smell," are not etymologically related. The latter is from dialectical French funkiere, "to smoke." The sense here is that someone has blown smoke on you and you have been "stifle[d] with offensive vapor." And in spite of the modern coolness surrounding funk musicians, there's nothing modern about funk as in skunk. It dates all the way back to the 17th century.

Funk is not the only old word for a bad smell that comes from the idea of smoke; in the peeyoo-smoke category we also find reek. Although primarily used in present-day English as a verb to mean "to have or emit a foul odor," the noun originally meant "smoke from burning material." Although exactly where reek comes from is uncertain, it is probably from a Scandinavian source like Old Norse reykr; this Old Norse root, as a verb reykja "to smoke" provides the name of Iceland's capital Reykjavik (-vik means "bay"). So yes, Reykjavik is the "reeking bay" city, but to locals, this concept connotes wonderfully smoky Icelandic hot springs, not sulphuric eruptions or even just that hotel room that wasn't as smoke free as the hotelier had promised. 

Was it ever possible to tell your sweetheart how much you love their stench and still have them be your sweetheart? If you were living in the twelfth century or earlier, maybe. Stench's association with a bad, or even evil, odor has been prevalent since the thirteenth. In fact, this very old word used to be part of a verbal paradigm in previous versions of English that no longer exists in our language.

In Old English, stincan was an intransitive verb that meant "to emit a smell" and stench was the causative form, meaning roughly, "to cause to emit a smell." Other verb pairs that were related to each other in this way include drink/drench (whose ancestral form meant "make drunk" three hundred years before the current word took on its modern day meaning of "wet thoroughly"),  shrink/shrench ("cause to shrink") and sink/sench ("cause to sink"). These causative forms were replaced by transitive forms (as in "You sunk my battleship!"), but while a causative form for drink might come in handy when accusing your friends of daring you too go too far at the bar, and a causative of shrink would be useful when arguing with a dry cleaner, mostly the language gets along fine without these forms. 

Speaking of causation, can you cause yourself to smell something or is it just a side effect of breathing? Before you answer, think about the difference between what happens when you sniff. The interesting thing about this word is that, before this came to suggest the action of a bloodhound, sniff described an "expression of scorn or contempt." Possibly related to snyvelen, which also contributes to our word snivel, the contemptuous sniff dates from 1729, and the word is not recorded as a synonym for smell until 1845.

Which can only make one wonder: as we evolved from the age of the chamberpot and semi-seasonal-at-best bathing, how are we only now acquiring words to delicately allude to our nasal suffering?

Want to get more specific about odor in the air? Check out this 10-word vocabulary list: Something Smells: From "Malodorous" to "Mephitic" to "It Reeks!"

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 18th 2015, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Another one I really like is the British word "pong"--wish it would catch on in US English!
Tuesday August 18th 2015, 11:38 AM
Comment by: cing V. (IL)
Tuesday August 18th 2015, 6:25 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Oh. Oh. Oh! I am drenched in this wonderful wordplay. I stench! I roll in it, and my nearest and dearest will probably make me take a bath.

Yet I will not raise my nose in the air and sniff. It was worth it.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.