The belief that the Inuit have fifty words for snow has become enshrined in urban myth. Snow and ice are so central to their way of life and have such an impact on their affairs that the complex properties, subtleties and variations of frozen water demand an accurate descriptive language to describe them.
In a country like mine, where it might snow twice a year, there is no need for such a rich vocabulary and there is less opportunity to even notice the wide variation in types of snow.
What has this got to do with the power of scent? I occasionally write for my blog and elsewhere about men’s fragrances - colognes, aftershaves, toilet water, scents. I’m often struck by how few words we have to describe smells.
After writing a few lines about a product it’s hard not to start repeating words like ‘fragrance’, ‘aroma’, ‘perfume’, ’scent’, ‘nose’, ‘bouquet’ and (boringly) ‘smell’. Frustratingly there are probably more words for unpleasant smells like ‘stench’, ‘odour’, ‘reek’, ‘miasma’, ‘pong’, whiff’ but it’s generally best to avoid these when reviewing a man’s cologne.
Smell is so central to our lives that you’d expect us to have at least fifty words to describe different sorts of scent, as the Inuit do with snow. Those who suffered a loss of smell as a result of covid soon realised what a loss this is.
Not only is the world a flat, uninteresting place without its smells, but the loss of the sense means we cannot taste our food properly. The sense of smell is powerfully central to my experience of life.
How often does a memory of a person or an event come unbidden into your head when, quite unexpectedly, you smell a familiar scent that vividly revives a moment long buried in the deepest archives of your mind?
A sudden whiff can have the power of resurrecting detailed experiences of love, confusion, dislike, fear, greed, excitement and pleasure. A lover, long forgotten, is suddenly at your side again as his or her favourite perfume wafts by you in the street. The sweet aroma of baby oil brings back memories of childhood, of cooking sausages of an idyllic barbecue on the beach and of warm cedar-laden sea breezes a holiday long ago.
For me the scents of loved ones and family are most vivid. The perfume of the sun on bare flesh, the sweet scent of a little baby or the fragrance left by a lover. A vivid olfactory memory for me was the experience of taking my turn to use the bathroom in the morning after my father had shaved.
I remember the comforting creamy fragrance of his Palmolive shaving soap, squeezed from a tube and applied with a brush before he shaved with a double-edged razor. Mingled with this was the spicy Old Spice aftershave he used, in its iconic red container shaped rather like a small milk bottle, or that classic cologne in the turquoise bottle covered in writing, ‘4711 Original Eau de Cologne’ with its citrus clean scent.
The power of smell on the memory is incalculable. It can revive experiences and memories of people and places not thought about for decades. We can harness the power of smell by subtly using quality fragrances to ensure that others remember us. To do this it’s best to stick to one or two fragrances rather than diluting the sensory message with too great a variety. The memories evoked by smell are more durable and vivid than even a photograph.
Editor's note & shameless plug: if David's tips have you yearning to discover your perfect fragrance or start your own tradition, perhaps you might consider the Thomas Clipper Discovery Set?