The Smell-versation: A Rose by any Other Nose

by Translation Guy on October 19, 2011

I am a natural-born, ‘ol hound dog when it comes to sniffing things out, especially other folks. It’s in my genes, your nature or your nurture, what have you.

Now my Maw could out-smell anyone, I guess on account of her being deaf in one ear, so it’s natural that she would place emphasis on one skill she still had both sides of. So it was important when I was growing up, being a good smeller and all.

So now, in the woods, on a damp, cool day, I might catch a whiff of a certain peppery smell of my brother, even if he’s walking up the other side of the hill, even 100 yards out, if the wind is blowing the right way.

I guess that makes him sound pretty smelly. But he’s not as bad as all that. Pretty typical, at least what with my own sniffing skills, which are like those of natural-born ‘ol hound dog.

But before you condemn me as some hillbilly side-show freak, be warned! I am not alone. We walk among you! In fact, I propose to you that practically everyone is doing the exact same kind of scent-ifying all the time, while the rest of us walk around with our heads stuck in the clouds, doing just the same.

Go tell it to the dachshund, right? You’re not buying this shaggy dog story because people’s noses at their best can’t hold a candle to Fido. “Look what he dug up! Hey, that’s Grandpa’s ring. I thought you said my sister took it.” But that evidence is only anecdotal. We must look to science.

Neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd at Yale has argued that although we have fewer odor receptors in our nose than other animals, we may compensate for this with an improved ability to analyze scent information with our large brains. He says, “We have a much better sense of smell than rats and dogs because of our greater brainpower,” We may just seem worse at scents because we don’t practice this skill from birth, the way that dogs do,” he argues. The way dogs do. Hmmm.

So a rose by any other nose would smell as sweet, since it’s the human brain that paints the picture. But smell your way to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice! Neuroscientist Noam Sobel of UC Berkley has taught humans to track chocolate like jes’ like a natural-born ‘ol hound dog. They, (the students I mean) can do it across the lawn usually on the first try. And with practice over several days, the students got better at tracking the chocolate trail, because the smart ones learn to sniff in stereo, back and forth across the trail, jes’ like a natural-born ‘ol hound dog.

That’s got to be a more useful skill than most of what these kids pick up today in college. Maybe we should start testing for that. Note to HR….

Now. If you are scratching your head wondering what sense of smell has as to do with language, then you’re going to have to keep scratching till next time, when we sniff out how human’s super-human sense of smell allows a smell-versation that never stops, all around us, all the time, silently and unconsciously, and which is, emotionally speaking, the very air we breathe.

Smell you later,

Translation Guu


  1. Wilber says:

    Teeny-tiny itty-bitty li’l quibble about the spelling of your recurring colloquialism. The conventional “eye-dialect” spelling of “old” as in, say, “good old boy” is not ‘ol but ol’.

    Admittedly it’s the kind of thing only a Pecksniff like me (heh heh) would even notice, let alone waste time quibbling about. God nose (heh heh) there are far more important things to worry about in life. Full disclosure: I did teach Freshman English for a few years, but never mind. I’m cool.

    Back to the

    • Ken says:

      Back to the… what, Wilber?

  2. Claus says:

    I want to sniff some chocolate. Where can I get that job?

  3. Pookie says:

    Great post. You are absolutely right in saying that we have a strong sense of smell, and that we just do not know how to use it. We have grown to depend so much more on our other senses. It is unfortunate.

  4. Bebo says:

    I never really paid much attention to the sense of smell thing, but ever since my son was little, I was amazed [and often not very understanding] of his incredibly sensitive smelling ability. Some of the simplest things that I never noticed, he did. And he often let me know when it was a smell he didn’t like.

  5. Lulu says:

    I teach middle school. I wish I could turn off my nose sometimes.

  6. How long did he have to search for that picture. Perfect.

  7. Audrey Kelly says:

    My wife has the olfactory bulb of a bloodhound. She can smell everything, and she is so intune with her sense of smell. Actually, it drives me crazy sometimes because I am not the same way and I don’t need to stop and smell a book.

  8. Caroline says:

    Scent tells us a lot, and unfortunately our society seems to want to confuse us by pushing onto us all of these artificially created empty scents… perfumes, deodorants, hairsprays, body lotions… you name it. Sad.

  9. Katie Todd says:

    I would go crazy if I couldn’t smell.

  10. Smelling allows us to make judgements on everything from people to food. It is a wonderful sense and I can’t stand it when I am sick and stuffed up and I cannot taste things properly!

  11. I was never much of a smeller. I was always stuffed up with allergies and even thought they don’t bother me now, I’m still not.

  12. Anita Potty says:

    Actually, I think I’m okay not smelling as much as I should. I enjoy a clean smell and frankly, If we had to say hello like the dogs in the picture, I think there would be a lot of vomit around.

  13. The smell of people is very important, and I am not talking about artificial smells. I am talking about body odours. One of my favorite smells in the whole world is the smell of my children. It connects us, it should be nurtured.

  14. Richard Song says:

    I think that many animals can pick up smaller scents that we can, but I think we are probably superior in the fact that over our lives we can identify hundres, if not thousands of different odors. Go big brain!

  15. Hairyass says:

    Look around. The animal world is full of smellers. It’s a shame all we do is cover up smells with artificial ones.

  16. Roy Gentry says:

    It has been proven that people have pheromones and that is what causes attraction.

  17. Flora says:

    And I thgohut I was the sensible one. Thanks for setting me straight.

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