Some fish such as blue fish have a kind of strong smell. What words (noun, adjective, etc) can describe specifically this kind of fish smell? Stench seems to mean any smell that is unpleasant.

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    IMHO fresh fish don't normally smell very strong. But dead fish exposed to air oxidise much faster than land-based animals, producing a characteristic unpleasant ammonia-like smell. Eat too much of that and you might well be ill, which I think is why we've evolved to find it unpleasant. Language came much later, but for the same reason we use the word "fishy" for "something you should probably avoid". Oct 31, 2011 at 17:01
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    -1 I am alone in thinking that this question: How do fish smell? with 19 upvotes for the obvious answer Fishy! makes the site look just a little bit silly?
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Nov 1, 2011 at 2:00
  • To the OP: all the answers seem to be about rotten fish. Is that what you wanted?
    – slim
    Jan 3, 2012 at 20:20
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    @slim: I didn't suppose the fish already rotten.
    – Tim
    Jan 3, 2012 at 21:08

5 Answers 5


I would use the adjective "fishy," actually. The smell of fish is pretty universally known, and that's what we say. One can even say that other things smell fishy.

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    +1. There are lots of wonderful English words for strong smells. But where fish is concerned, if you use this one everyone will immediately know just what you mean.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 31, 2011 at 15:37
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    The trouble is, if you say something smells "fishy" you run the risk of having people think it's not above board, since the alternate meaning is that something is underhanded or dishonest. Context would likely make that clear, but there could be some overlap: "I smell something fishy in the kitchen" could mean fish is cooking or that the chef is dishonest. Or both. Ain't English fun?
    – Robusto
    Oct 31, 2011 at 16:42
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    @Robusto初夢: I knew about the word fishy, but I avoid using it in this situation, just because of its overwhelming metaphoric meaning as you pointed out. "Ain't English fun?" yes and no.
    – Tim
    Oct 31, 2011 at 17:30
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    Alternatively, you could say that there is a fishy smell, in which case you avoid the idiomatic meaning.
    – zpletan
    Nov 1, 2011 at 2:05
  • @zpletan: Thanks! What differences are between idiomatic and metaphoric?
    – Tim
    Nov 1, 2011 at 2:27

You could use one of the following words: foul, noxious, putrid, rank, or reeking.

  • Did he specify rotten fish? Fresh fish doesn't smell foul, noxious, putrid, rank or reeking.
    – slim
    Jan 3, 2012 at 20:19

The smell of fish comes from a similar process as the smell of urine - the breaking down of amines.

So you could call the smell


I find acrid a useful adjective, though in my mind, that can also mean smoky.


I'd personally use the word "rancid" for such smells.

Aminic and ammoniacal aren't really words, though?

  • What do you mean they aren't really words? Check the dictionary: aminic ammoniacal
    – herisson
    Jun 20, 2016 at 4:02
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    I stand corrected. I guess I meant that they weren't "popularly-used" words.
    – E.Groeg
    Jun 20, 2016 at 4:12

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