I was struggling to find the right words for olfactory impressions.

Is there a neutral word for an olfactory impression?

  • smell seems to have a negative connotation
  • aroma sounds more like having to do with dishes or spices
  • olfactory impression well, ... that's not a word, it's two. And two that rather focus on the perception of the smell, than on the smell itself.
  • odour?
  • scent?
  • 1
    the term fragrance has positive connotations, we speak about a perfume's fragrance, or the fragrances of flowers and if anything is deemed fragrant, we tend to think it is pleasant.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 18, 2014 at 5:17
  • 12
    I don't think smell is intrinsically negative: There were some good smells emanating from the kitchen.
    – Jim
    Sep 18, 2014 at 5:36
  • 2
    Incidentally, apart from positive-negative/ pleasant-unpleasant connotations, each of the words is used in a related context only. They are not interchangeable: A perfume's *aroma; The *scent of fresh bread.
    – Kris
    Sep 18, 2014 at 6:14
  • 14
    Free of context, scent is essentially neutral and universally applicable.
    – Kris
    Sep 18, 2014 at 6:15
  • It depends on context.
    – Lambie
    Feb 12 at 17:50

4 Answers 4


The results in this Google Books Ngrams chart seem to imply that the terms, the scent and the smell are the most used.

enter image description here

In order to ascertain how neutral these terms were I selected the following criteria.

  • smell of *
  • scent of *
  • smell of the *
  • scent of the *
  • smells good
  • smells bad

The asterisk represents any word that follows the last term which Google Books has a record of.

Link to Ngrams Chart enter image description here

Judging from the results, it appears that the verb smell is more often associated with the adjective good than with bad, at least in its written form. However, if one notes the different terms used with smell of; smoke, death, burning, and blood along with fresh, the sea, the earth, etc. it is clear that both pleasant and unpleasant odours are collocated with smell. Whereas the noun scent tends towards positive collocations such as: roses, pine, fresh, the sea, jasmine, the flowers.

Consequently, the OP's choice of Scents & Smells for her proposal appears to be a very sensible and objective decision.

  • 5
    Of course, if smell would have a generally negative connotation, that would explain why "smells bad" is used less, as it could be perceived as a pleonasm, whereas if it is used positively it has to be followed by good. I think it is a bit tricky to infer connotations from use like this.
    – oerkelens
    Sep 18, 2014 at 7:52
  • @oerkelens that's a good point, but how would you check this meaning on Ngram? I might interpret the following phrase: "That flower smells" to mean that the flower has a particularly pungent, perhaps even unpleasant scent. Or I could be commenting on the fact that the other flowers do not have any fragrance whereas this one does!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 18, 2014 at 7:57
  • 2
    I get the neat explanation, I don't get the conclusion: The OP is asking for a neutral word. How can words 'more often associated with good than with bad' and 'usually associated with pleasing odours' be more neutral than others?
    – Mina
    Sep 18, 2014 at 8:03
  • 1
    @Mina if you look at the type of words associated with smell: smell of death, smell of burning, smell of blood those expressions prove to me that smell is more neutral than fragrance for example, because both "good" and "bad" odours are used with smell. Instead scent tends towards positive collocations which I pointed out in my conclusion.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 18, 2014 at 8:08
  • 1
    We humans have evolved an olfactory system with significant danger triggers; so most smells that we recognize have meaning, in the sense that developing the ability has contributed to survival; many things smell good, but more smell bad, and the ones we perceive as "strong" are almost universally dangerous in one way or another. If you say This smells without specifying anything else, it means that it stinks. You have to add good to mean good; that's why smells good so common in the data. Sep 18, 2014 at 17:08

I think odour ( or scent) is the more general and neutral term, to convey specific olfactory impressions you have to use other definitions such as fragrance, aroma or malodour for instance:

  • is caused by one or more volatilized chemical compounds, generally at a very low concentration, that humans or other animals perceive by the sense of olfaction.

    • Odours are also commonly called scents, which can refer to both pleasant and unpleasant odors. The terms fragrance and aroma are used primarily by the food and cosmetic industry to describe a pleasant odor, and are sometimes used to refer to perfumes. In contrast, malodor, stench, reek, and stink are used specifically to describe unpleasant odor. sometimes the term funk can be used to describe unpleasant odour.

Source: www.wikipedia.org

  • 1
    But is odour neutral? It does usually convey negativity. When used metaphorically I might say for example but if you do that it will put you in bad odour with the neighbours. We seldom, if ever, talk about being in good odour with anything. We might say instead that will make us sweet with the people next door. In the latter case we are using a taste metaphor.
    – WS2
    Sep 18, 2014 at 5:51
  • 1
    I think it is, in your example you use the adjective 'bad' to give a connotation to odour. As shown above it may refer either to pleasant or unpleasant scents. I think it is the more general and neutral term in this respect.
    – user66974
    Sep 18, 2014 at 6:08
  • books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Kris
    Sep 18, 2014 at 6:17
  • 1
    Do the Ngrams above show that odour or scent are not 'neutral' terms?
    – user66974
    Sep 18, 2014 at 6:21
  • 2
    You need an adjective to give them a positive or negative connotation. Anyway thanks for your opinion. :)
    – user66974
    Sep 18, 2014 at 6:26

I agree with the original poster, and some of the commenters.

"Smell" and "odour / odor" both definitely have negative connotations. (If this were not so, "smelly," which is just "smell" with a "y" added, would not be negative while "tasty" is regarded as positive.)

"Scent" has a positive connotation, but also a feminine connotation. I can't see a guy mentioning or describing a "scent" unless he works for the perfume industry. English needs to have a better neutral word for "smell" than "smell," but so far, it doesn't.

Here's an interesting article from The Atlantic on the paucity of words to describe smells, as well: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/11/the-vocabulary-of-smell/414618/

  • While new answers to old questions are welcome on this site (unlike many other places on the Internet), they are expected to be posted only when they add something significant to what already appears on the same page (not to express agreement with it). This seems to be more of a comment than an answer (the distinction between the two is an important aspect of the architecture of this site).
    – jsw29
    Feb 12 at 17:15

OP writes:

... struggling to find the right words for olfactory impressions.

If you want to refer to the action of the olfactory sense, you could use a gerund, "smelling".

Smelling is a chemical process. When we smell a smell, molecules...

It is a way to refer abstractly to the act or mechanism, which is what you seem to be trying to do, so that there is no connotation of pleasantness or unpleasantness in the word for what is smelled. SOMETIMES YOU WILL ACTUALLY HAVE TO USE THE LANGUAGE TO ESTABLISH A CONTEXT RATHER THAN WASTING TIME SEARCHING FOR THE ELUSIVE "PERFECT" WORD.

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