When it comes to smells, it is good to be bad.

Smells. Words. Evolution. And how language, psychology and biology work together to keep us safe. 


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Our sense of smell is amazing: we can “detect millions of airborne odorants…in quite small concentrations”.  Scientists believe this to be an evolutionary response to keep us safe: it made it easier to hunt at night under the cover of darkness, and to smell danger a mile away (read all about it in the 1-Minute NomNom “Nose job“).

we seem to prefer words for bad smellsThis amazing ability might in turn have resulted in humans having a much greater penchant for negative smells and words. Stanford professor of linguistics and computer science, Dan Jurafsky, writes in his book The Language of Food that “words for smell seem particularly disposed to the negative”.

He cites Cantonese words for describing good and bad smells as an example. If we want to say something smells good, “fragrant” (香 heung) might be one such word, but very quickly, we are hard-pressed to come with with another.

smells smelling Depositphotos_33871259_originalBut if you want to say something smells bad, ahhhhhhh, Cantonese has at least five words to describe it:

(the numbers after each word denotes the tone)

suk1 the bacterial smell of spoiled rice or tofu
ngaat3 the ammoniacal smell of urine, ammonia
yik1 the smell of rancid or oxidized oil or peanuts
seng1 fishy, bloody smell
sou1 musky, muttony, gamy, body odor smell
(Source: The Language of Food via Huffington Post)

Professor Jurafsky asserts that this “greater differentiation of negative smells is but one aspect of negativity bias, the idea that humans are biased to be especially aware of negative situations”.

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Negativity bias – the bad affects us more than the good

Why do we have this “negativity bias“?  According to Psychology Today:

“Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily most likely evolved for a good reason—to keep us out of harm’s way. From the dawn of human history, our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger. The brain developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to notice danger and thus, hopefully, respond to it.”

Negativity bias thus keeps us safe. And having more negative bad smell words keeps us safe. Just like how our keen sense of smell has evolved to keep us safe.

It isn’t just any single one of them doing it: it is psychology, vocabulary, and biology working in concert to do so. If we stop and think about it, that’s pretty remarkable, isn’t it?

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In 1 minute, list or write down all the words related to smell that you can think of. Do a count. Are there more positive or negative smell words? Share them with us in the comments below!


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photos: in order – depositphotos/HASLOO; istockphoto/CactuSoup; depositphotos/londondepositNomadsoul1HASLOO

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