I sometimes catch a whiff of something that reminds me very strongly, but very vaguely, of a time in my past. Different whiffs for different times. It's not a single identifiable smell and a single identifiable memory (i.e. chicken soup --> that time in Grade 10 when I had mononucleosis and my aunt took care of me). It's more of a vague smell that takes you back to a general time in your life.

How would you describe this? I'm open to both scientific and creative expressions of this phenomenon.

Allow me to add that this is not deliberate nor always positive. And I am not asking broadly about remembering the past, but about how smell, in particular, sparks a sense of past time or places.

  • Interesting question- have definitely experienced this- whenever I pass a specific dumpster, I feel like I'm back in camp, for example. Curious to see if anyone will come up with the word for it....
    – Gitty
    Nov 18, 2014 at 15:07
  • 2
    this is clearly nosetalgia
    – quant
    Nov 19, 2014 at 2:57
  • It may indicate nostalgia in some cases, but it is not nostalgia, per se. Nostalgia does not, by definition, include smell. Also, nostalgia is positive, but what I'm looking for is not necessarily positive or negative.
    – Rusty Tuba
    Nov 19, 2014 at 2:59
  • Evocative; please see my answer.
    – Jelila
    Mar 23 at 17:37

7 Answers 7


Redolent would be useful in this case.

Its origins are in a word simply meaning to give an odor, and it now is used most commonly to describe an evocative smell, and often one that triggers nostalgia.

Modern usage requires it to be attributed to something, either an item the smell reminds you of ("redolent of ripe cherries") or more figuratively of a memory :

“[T]he very color of the air in the place I was born was different, the smell of the earth was special, redolent with memories of my parents.” -Soseki Natsume

It is generally used in a more positive, nostalgic sense but is not required to be.

  • To modern ears, the association with smell has probably disappeared entirely; still, this is quite a nice choice of words. Nov 18, 2014 at 20:34
  • Thanks Michael, and welcome to the site. I think your response is great.
    – Rusty Tuba
    Nov 18, 2014 at 23:38

It could be an evocative smell.

  • 1
    Indeed, smell is our most evocative sense, according to a book promoter press release that slipped into the Reuters feed a few years back.
    – choster
    Nov 18, 2014 at 16:01

In French there is an expression for that "la madeleine de Proust" The smell of a madeleine (the cake) made the writer Marcel Proust remember old events. See the article on wikipedia

  • 5
    Indeed, in English we often speak of a memory-triggering sensation as being Proustian.
    – phenry
    Nov 18, 2014 at 23:15


  • a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

Additional source on Nostalgic Smells

Olfactic Memory could also be what you're looking for.


Reminiscent :

  • tending to remind :

also suggestive:

  • bringing thoughts, memories, or feelings into the mind.
  • stimulating further thought
  • Thanks Josh61; however, "reminiscence" doesn't - by definition - include the concept of smell. I'm not talking simply about remembering and recalling, but of being prompted involuntarily by smell.
    – Rusty Tuba
    Nov 18, 2014 at 12:54
  • 5
    @rusty, then clearly you want remini-scent.
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 18, 2014 at 13:20
  • @DanBron - nice pun :))!!
    – user66974
    Nov 18, 2014 at 13:29
  • @Rusty Tuba ..not sure there is a smell specific term, in the meantime I leave it here and see what other user suggest!!
    – user66974
    Nov 18, 2014 at 13:30
  • 1
    Bravo @DanBron, Bravo! :)
    – Marv Mills
    Nov 18, 2014 at 16:08

I think you might mean synesthesia. Baudelaire's poems - particularly 'Correspondances' - and (perhaps more famously, outside France) Proust explored this phenomenon. In the former case, certain perfumes transported the poet back to his past. In the latter, Proust famously remembered his past as he dunked madeleines in his tea. Voilà.

  • Looks like a solid first answer. The only thing I might recommend is to cite a definition from a dictionary.
    – Skooba
    Sep 6, 2018 at 20:55


Evocative refers to something that 'evokes' or brings up something, it implies memories being triggered.

Reminding one of something pleasant.

  • An evocative scent.

  • The evocative scent of jasmine filled the air, instantly reminding him of her.


  • The same answer was already posted almost ten years ago.
    – jsw29
    Mar 23 at 17:45
  • @jsw29 This is a better version of that answer though. (I initially had the same reaction and then had second thoughts.)
    – Andrew Leach
    Mar 23 at 18:15
  • Thanks Andrew. Yes, I believe this is intended to be an evergreen site, jsw29? Intended to be of benefit to future generations.
    – Jelila
    Mar 24 at 15:08

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