Tuesday, 17 January 2012

What's A Chypre When It's At Home?

According to a recent article in the Independent, there is a very large number of words to describe different types of laughter in Marathi (a language spoken by over 40 million Indians). These include: hyahya (superficial, polite laughter); phidipid (vulgar and obscene laughter) and my personal favourite, phisphis (derogatory laughter). I suppose English has its fair share of laughter words too (giggling, chuckling, snorting, tittering, chortling) although it's interesting to note that these don't refer to specific social circumstances (and that very few of them are nouns... but let's not get pedantic about grammar today).

All this causes me to reflect on one of my current perfumery projects: making a chypre for a friend. Smells are difficult to describe at the best of times: it's one thing saying to people that an 'amber' perfume contains labdanum and vanilla, but it's quite another to get them to imagine the odour created by this combination of ingredients. The word 'chypre' is pretty useless unless you can back it up with samples of, say, Mon Parfum Chéri, Mitsouko and Jubilation 25. 'Fougère' is equally meaningless without the appropriate olfactory evidence. 

Maybe this is indicative of the fact that we members of western cultures don't have sufficient vocab to describe the different scents with which the world presents us. I'd love it if we had a word meaning 'unpleasant smell which drifts into one's nose on busy city streets' or 'indescribable smell which vanishes as soon as it arrives, but evokes a lifetime's worth of memories' or even more nebulous concepts like 'sad smell', 'angry smell' or 'peaceful smell'. I wonder if there are any cultures out there which have developed a varied, precise vocabulary of odours, similar to the Marathi vocabulary of laughter. And if there are, I'd love to know if the precision with which they're able to articulate olfactory sensations means that they don't have to resort to the descriptive strategies we use in the west: metaphor and analogy. If it does, I rather suspect I'd prefer to stick to my own, relatively unscented lingo.


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  1. Very interesting post. Another Perfume Blog recently reviewed Jean Claude Ellena's book "Perfume: An Alchemy of Scent" and I was very intrigued to hear JCE talking about a new vocabulary for perfume based on emotion. To quote from the book via APB -

    ”Share your passions, your desires. This will undoubtedly take more time as we will have to create a common vocabulary to understand each other. It will be more difficult because we will be sharing a part of ourselves. But the result will be innovative, unadulterated, for perfume is not a product that expressed an immediate emotion but a link to the life of the emotions.”

    I think this has some relation to concepts like "sad smell", "angry smell" etc but how exactly we put this into practice I'm not entirely sure.

  2. Nouns? If to browse through synonyms, it looks like there are a lot of nouns: cackle, chortle, chuckle, snort, mirth, snicker, giggle, snigger, titter, teehee, crow, quack, guffaw, gobble. Most of them, though, are described as "a loud laugh" so you're right, not much of a social context there.

    For any subject to be well represented in a language it should be relatively important in a society (e.g. Sami People, an indigenous circumpolar group, have hundreds of words for snow - see the first paragraph of the article). For the society I live in, usually it matters more of what it smells (flowers/food/urine/chemicals/etc.) than how (sad/happy/dengerous/calm). "How" is limited to the most important factors "pleasant/unpleasant". If to add a huge difference in individual perception of the same scent, I don't think any precicion in describing odors is feasible.

  3. Tara, thanks very much indeed for the quotation. I admit I did have Ellena's book on my mind when I wrote the post. I'm equally unsure as to how we would go about creating a new smell vocab, but languages do change and evolve, so as we become more educated about smell, I'm sure the manner in which we communicate about it will adapt.

  4. Undina, thanks for taking the time to leave such a detailed comment. I take your point about the nouns. And I couldn't agree more about cultural importance. Maybe that's something that will come with time in the west.

  5. The west is more into techno/math more than any form of creative beauty - particularly here in the USA!! Fighting back with tons of beauty to counter the tons of techno sounds good - as in never quit dreaming!!! ;-) GREAT LUCK AND STRENGTH FOR YOUR UNDERCOVER TASK!!!

  6. Linda, I love the sound of fighting back with beauty!

    Thanks very much for your good wishes.


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