Is there any special word for the smell of old books? I know about the use of musty to describe them. But I thought there could be a special word too, just like petrichor for the smell of fresh earth following rain.

  • 1
    A planned perfume based on the smell of old books suggests, 'about ebooks and their failings: equip yourself with a bottle of this and douse liberally on an iPad cover.' mhpbooks.com/42609/the-smell-of-old-books-explained-done
    – Kris
    Feb 8, 2012 at 8:53
  • I am certain there is no name other than the familiar aromatic term the smell of old books itself, which has become idiomatic.
    – Kris
    Feb 8, 2012 at 8:56
  • 4
    +1 for teaching me petrichor. What an amazing and beautiful word!
    – Lunivore
    Feb 8, 2012 at 13:15
  • 1
    The word 'petrichor' seems to be only ever used in the specific context of talking about how special it is that it is one of the few nouns for particular odors.
    – Mitch
    Feb 9, 2012 at 3:10
  • In the absence of an existing word for "the smell of old books", I wonder if papyrichor would makes sense to people.
    – Gossar
    Nov 3, 2018 at 19:11

4 Answers 4


In most dictionaries, musty is not a word with particularly pleasant connotations, while the smell of books is one that has pleasant associations for me.

You can say that books are redolent of paper and ink, or you can simply refer to that "old book smell."

This article has some insight on why old books smell the way they do:

An odour of a book is a complex mixture of odorous volatiles, emitted from different materials from which books are made.

The pleasant aromatic smell is due to aromatic compounds emitted mainly from papers made from ground wood which are characterised by their yellowish-brown colour. They emit vanilla-like, sweetly fragrant vanillin, aromatic anisol and benzaldehyde, with fruity almond-like odor. On the other hand, terpene compounds, deriving from rosin, which is used to make paper more impermeable to inks, contribute to the camphorous, oily and woody smell of books. A mushroom odour is caused by some other, intensely fragrant aliphatic alcohols.

A typical odour of "old book" is thus determined by a mixture of fragrant volatiles and is not dominated by any single compound. Not all books smell the same.

It's amusing to note that some enterprising folks are selling e-books with a scratch-and-sniff "book smell" sticker, and that others sell that "classic musty smell" or "new book smell" in a can. From Reuters:

A survey of 600 college students conducted by pollster Zogby International found that 43 percent of students identified smell, either a new or old smell, as the quality they most liked about books as physical objects.

  • According to MaterialDegradomists Strlič et al., the name currently is the smell of old books.
    – Kris
    Feb 8, 2012 at 9:24
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    Similarly, the best thing about art school is the smell(s)
    – horatio
    Feb 8, 2012 at 15:02

Not all books smell the same. They may smell as "dusty", "musty", "mouldy", "paper-like" or "dry", "heart-warming". Please check smell of old books

  • "I thought that it may be that smoking was very popular several years ago, having a fag while reading maybe?" (which being the cause of the distinctive smell). From the same source.
    – Kris
    Feb 8, 2012 at 9:00

Having searched the definitions of the OED for the words smell/scent and book/books, I have found no such word.


According to Strlič et al., the name currently is the smell of old books. (Material degradomics: on the smell of old books.)

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