ODORBET: When words don't exist to describe fragrance, why not create a vocabulary for the nose!

2020 . 08 . 21 | written by Karen Marin

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Fragrance lovers


When discussing fragrance with fellow industry insiders, fragrance lovers and certainly with anyone related to training, one of the topics that often comes up is the lack of vocabulary that most people possess when trying to describe scent. Instead of being specific, the conversation often involves comparisons or nebulous, general terms such as floral, woodsy or creamy. What if we could be more precise and more descriptive? ODORBET, the brainchild of artist and author Catherine Haley Epstein and art and olfactory historian Caro Verbeek, is taking on this challenge by creating a distinct olfactory vocabulary. Collaborators from all over the world are submitting proposals and new words or terms are released in themed trios on a random basis, published on the Odorbet website which is an open resource for all fragrance lovers. Read on to learn more and to meet the founders.

How and where did the two of you meet?
Actually, we have never met in person! That’s the beauty of social media – even though it cannot convey scents – it can really enhance your network. Thanks to Facebook we met when I made a post about Caro’s work and she contacted me.

Tell me about Odorbet. How did this idea come about? Did it grow from a joint vision?
Catherine: We both share a passion for scent culture and we are both interested in lifting the realm of olfaction to a more conceptual level. We also both agreed on the fact that simply describing scents is not enough. It would be like describing Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” (1642) in terms of colours, shapes and chemical substances, or verbally describing the tune “Take Five” (1959) by Dave Brubeck without humming it!
I made up the term Odorbet as a play on the alphabet. While they can be alphabetized, it’s more interesting to explore the terms we are uncovering in small installations by theme (e.g. scent classification systems, scented science terms). It’s definitely a joint vision where we both look to the exercise of the Odorbet as a break from some of the more pressing work and studies we are doing.

Caro: The term ‘odorbet’ to me has both a sensory and a more intellectual quality. It refers to ‘alphabet’ but also brings to my mind a strong sorbet flavour. So I immediately fell in love with Catherine’s choice for a title.
Most people have a very visual or ocularcentric approach to the world, and this exists in academia as well as daily life. So we came up with olfactory equivalents for vision related words. For example, most words connected to knowledge are connected to sight. Think of terms such as ‘reflecting’, ‘world view’ and ‘I see what you mean’. Why not say ‘I smell what you mean’ and talk about ‘world sniff’ and ‘olfactionary’ instead of visionary?

Why do you think the general public is limited in their ability to describe scent?
Catherine: We’ve been taught to follow a hedonistic guide, meaning pleasurable scents associated with food, flowers and a choice to “like” or “not like” things. We haven’t been taught to think about layers of smell, or possible other meanings for smell such as fear, dehydration or bad nutrition. If we had more exposure to smell and labeling like we do when we are learning language, we would all have smarter noses.

Caro: Research by psycholinguist Asifa Majid has demonstrated that there are cultures (mostly hunter-gatherers like the Jahai) that have absolutely no trouble at all to describe scents. This means that the present western lack of olfactory vocabulary is not a result of a biological malfunction, but due to cultural circumstances. In the past there were many more words to describe smell; probably because naming odours was important for knowledge and survival. Alain Corbin – in his famous treaty ‘the foul and the fragrant’ - researched the vocabulary of professional 18th century smell mappers. These people sniffed out the city in order to find out if there were any ‘dangerous’ smells and needed to report about them by means of words so they had very precise categories in order to convey their findings. In the 18th century people still believed smells could kill! Of course, we DO need our sense of smell to survive. We just rarely talk about it because smell affects many people subconsciously. Words are all about rendering experiences more explicit, and this is why we would greatly benefit from a larger vocabulary today too; maybe not for survival but at least for good conversations and a deeper understanding of what smell can do for our well-being.

What are some of your favorite terms? I love frescacido – that really speaks to me! And odoresque!
It’s so nice that you mention these! Both are existing neologisms that were invented around the fin-de-siècle. Frescacido is a contraction of the Italian words for fresh and sour. Similarly, we have ‘caldagrodolce’ again combining temperature and taste to convey a scent that is hot and bittersweet. My own favorite is ‘period nose’, inspired by art historian Baxandall’s ‘period eye’. The term is revealing about the nature of smelling, which is not just physical, but a result of the cultural context, which differs from era to era.

Catherine: I recently stumbled upon the term “Heavenly Door” which knocked my socks off! It’s an ancient Taoist expression describing the nose, which they believed was a seminal point of transfer between the outside world and the inside world - a passage through breath.

How do you hope the vocabulary will be used?
Our hope is that the vocabulary will inspire new ways of considering scent and our sense of smell: as soon as we reconnect our noses to our brains and bodies, we will expand our consciousness on many levels. We hope that people outside the perfume and scent community will start using these words, so smell can become part of broader academic and artistic discourses.

How do you think this project will develop over the next few years?
We hope to have the Odorbet running freely with new peer reviewed entries and essays as people are inspired to contribute. Also we would love to organize workshops, so people can connect actual smells to the words from the Odorbet and discuss their findings in real time.

Has your personal use of fragrance changed since you have been involved in this project?
I am still a rabid fan and collector of notes, perfumes, and backyard smells. If anything collecting and making the words has increased my use of smells, seeing what the effects are at different times of day, in different contexts and trying to get a read of my odormatic responses to daily and unusual smells. Yes, I made that word up (odormatic: the specific and automatic reaction one has to specific scent stimuli).

Caro: Since the pandemic I started using Turkish cologne to disinfect my hands and surfaces. I love how this traditional use of cologne is now a worldwide practice and that entire streets in Amsterdam smell of lemon.

That is so interesting Caro! I wrote about the tradition of Turkish cologne a few months back when we were in the throes of COVID-19 lockdown in Europe. I think it could be called a frescacido scent! And speaking of the pandemic, it has placed fresh emphasis on our ability to smell. Do you think people are finding a new appreciation for their sense of smell?
Covid-19 apparently causes anosmia but I even saw the term ‘coronosmia’ (anosmia caused by corona) on twitter. My relation to smell has definitely changed. Being in lockdown deprives us of so many smells, especially ‘social’ smells. Odorless people on zoom are somehow ‘dehumanized’. When I went out again for the first time and smelled people, it felt so incredibly intimate. And this year, without the car exhaust, everything bloomed and sprouted like never before. The scent of spring was very comforting for me; it was magnificent.

How do you wish the fragrance industry would evolve? What changes would you like to see happen?
Caro: I hope the fragrance industry can move beyond the realm of beauty and care products, towards societal and heritage projects and maybe even hospitals and – hopefully – educate the nostrils of children and grown-ups alike. I worked with IFF on a 5-year project for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. We created a dozen scents that were connected to art works in the museum (Battle of Waterloo, Nightwatch, Rietveld Chair, an 18th century canal house etc.) and used these scents during tours (for blind people, children and grown-ups) to see what effects they had. It turned out people pay attention to different details when they are confronted with smell and feel more emotionally and directly connected to artefacts and to history.

Catherine: I think the fragrance industry is (and must) evolving with an eye on transparency and sustainability - that is key for the environment and for the health of the consumers. It would be great if they sprouted labs for consumers to play with the materials, as there are similar DIY libraries doing so. They could have the dual function to serve as market research for new products. Inviting the public to explore and experience things is the only way to broaden the dialogue of an art form. Which begs the question, is creating fragrance a form of art? Why not let scent creators discuss the economy of details in a fragrance, just as artists must consider the economy of details in drawing. What makes fragrance an art form versus a smell or craft product? It’s a fun discussion that could be teased out more and the industry should not be shy to participate!

I understand that you are both completing degrees and of course have other projects. Can you share some details?
I’m working on my Masters in the Art of Counseling with a focus on Neuropsychology and Psychodynamic Theory. Specifically psychodynamic theory (or modern psychoanalysis) deals with the unconscious mind. I’ve always been driven to understand the dynamics of human interactions, the unconscious, and events using multiple lenses. I am interested in continually studying these dynamics, and plan to apply all I have learned in my art practice, which includes scent, and to my practice as a therapist and researcher.

Caro: I have now finished my PhD which is about the olfactory dimension of the avant-garde movement called Futurism and how to present scents in museums to preserve scent as heritage. Further, I developed a new academic course called ‘Knowing by Sensing’ in which students from the fields of medicine, medical history, art and museology can learn how to use all their senses as tools of knowledge and to present their outcomes in a multi-sensory manner. I also organize the monthly scent culture program Odorama, a program I founded in 2015 because I was not happy about the fact that there are so many conferences about smell without smell. Why would we only look at slides and listen to stories when we can convey knowledge by the sense of smell? During Odorama we work with an aromajockey so people can actually connect smell to words. Something that rarely happens due to the nature of our audio-visually oriented society and media.

That’s brilliant, an aromajockey! We will have to incorporate this practice into future live scent events!

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A term in the Odorbet
Catherine Haley Epstein
Caro Verbeek sniffing pomander
Blind photographer Hannes Wallrafen before the Battle at Waterloo during olfactory session