For visual impressions, we have a rich vocabulary to describe concepts without using concrete objects:

  • Color: blue, red, green, bright, dark. Combinations of those.
  • Shapes: Round, pointy, straight, curved, concave, convex, flat, rough, ...
  • Textures: Striped, dotted, dashed, ...

For auditory impressions I can also name a few:

  • Volume: Loud, silent
  • Frequency: low, high

For gustatory sensations I would say concepts are:

  • Salty
  • Bitter
  • Sour
  • Sweet
  • Umami

The tactile concepts are similar to the visual ones:

  • Shapes: See above
  • Roughness
  • Elasticity

Now to my question: Of course, I can say something smells like a flower, like grass, like excrements, like grilling, wet dog, ....

But those are only analogies. And quite vague ones, too. So for example, if I wanted to describe somebody the smell of a specific type of wood, I would have no idea how to do so. Is this only my fault / problem (so: do I simply lack the words, but there are some) or is this a broader phenomenon (and thus could be asked on https://cogsci.stackexchange.com/)?

  • You could try reading descriptions on wine bottles. they generally have taste, texture and aroma on them. Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 8:14
  • What is texture of wine? What is the difference between taste and aroma? Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 8:21
  • Ask the sommeliers round here! 'Compare for example the silky tannins of a red Burgundy wine to the grippy, almost astringent tannins of a young Barolo wine...', 'tannin in red wine is a major contributor to texture.', 'Alcohol adds viscosity to a wine.' etc. Google wine texture, there's loads of things Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 9:00
  • There are many comparators used, but people often disagree over what a certain smell is redolent of, and the comparators are usually given in a form such as 'This meadowsweet smells like the disinfectant they used in hospitals in the 50s'. A list parallelling 'salty / bitter ...' is probably not available and would be too peripheral (as non-standard) for ELU at this time. Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 9:16

1 Answer 1


Wikipedia has an article on "Odor" Odor (as well as one on Olfaction, but it's about the science, not descriptive vocabulary) including this:

Different categorizations of primary odors have been proposed, among others this, which relies on seven primary odors (with examples):[13][14][15]

Musky – perfumes/aftershave

Putrid – rotten eggs

Pungent – vinegar

Camphoraceous – mothballs

Ethereal – dry cleaning fluid

Floral – roses (see also floral scent)

Pepperminty – mint gum

Although recently progress has been made, the idea of primary perceptions is disputed, and more so probably the concept of primary odors.[15]

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.