Comparative Smell Vocabularies

This segmented radial convergence diagram can be used to facilitate interrogation of how smell vocabularies are shared between different classification systems.

Using words from 5 disciplines combined with human-perceived smells verbatim (from one of my site-specific research projects smellwalking and smellmapping in Pamplona) the diagram suggests how the smells might be categorised according to specialist aroma wheels and classification systems. Cross-referencing expert olfactory terminologies from different disciplines reveals a complexity and confusion in labelling smells, leaves some smells without ‘homes’ and indicates a need for alternative strategies when representing the urban vernacular smellscape.

Inner Ring – Classification Systems & Odour Wheels
LINNEAUS (1752) Odores Medicamentorum
EDWARDS (1992) Fragrance Wheel
NOBLE (revised 2002) Wine Aroma Wheel
CASTRO ET AL (2013) Perceptual Dimensions
HENSHAW (2014) Urban

Smell is characterised by a paucity of nomenclature necessitating olfactory industries to develop their own odour classification systems that are ‘convenient for learning and remembering’ (Dowthwaite, 2016). Visual odour wheels are structurally useful in that they ‘help the user move from the broad, e.g., sweet or putrid, to the specific’ (McGinley, 2014). My ‘Smellscape Mapping’ research is interested in vernacular smell descriptors, and in identifying which olfactory classification system, if any, may be the most useful to the practice. This visualisation of cross-referenced smell descriptors with five classification systems is designed to reveal connections and identify loose ends. Five seminal classification systems were chosen from research in established fields; Botany (Linneaus), Perfumery (Edwards), Wine (Noble), Neuroscience (Castro) and Urban Design (Henshaw) from which a total of • 355 individual smell descriptors were aggregated into an alphabetic listing including * 127 smells identified by smellwalkers during primary research in Pamplona in 2014 conducted as part of the annual Mapamundistas Visual Arts programme. Each smell descriptor links with a direct line to the classification(s) in which it has a mention. The Pamplona smells were mapped to possible categories.

Outer Ring – Smell Descriptors
Odour source (cause / object / noun)
Descriptive (effect / adjective)
Metaphor (subjective association)
Place (geographic location)
Temporal (season / time of day)

Sperber (1975) indicates two ways to talk about smell; one derives from the cause and the other from the effect. For example ‘blackberry’ and ‘mint’ are the source of the smell, they cause it. Whereas ‘disgusting’ (human reaction) and ‘burnt’ (after-effect) are the experiences of a smell. In addition to cause and effect, my research reveals that some smell descriptors are complex in terms of their composition, and some are place-related (McLean, 2011) here exemplified by ‘church’ and ‘hairdresser’. Some smells take the form of subjective associations metaphors that have very specific meaning to individuals e.g. ‘pre-university exam’. There are also time-based odours which can be seasonal e.g. ‘autumn’ and ‘summer’. However, the use of language in such cases is not clear cut and I can argue that ‘pre-unversity exam’ is both temporal and a metaphor just as ‘market’ is both a place and a temporal activity. Indeed all smells have a temporal dimension. In the quest to reduce complexity odour classification, professional systems reveal disagreement as to how to best classify smells, thus indicating a complexity and confusion in using language as a representational method. Vernacular smell descriptors are often non-reductive, compound and enthusiastic, resisting obvious placement in any category. What to do with such smells?


Portolans are sea charts dating from 13th, 15th and 16th centuries, mainly depicting the Mediterranean they indicate the shortest trajectory between two trading ports, they were designed to make sea voyages as quick and as safe as possible when the ships were out of sight of land. Portolans depict coastlines and safe havens based on limited navigational aids… the mapping of smell vocabularies is at a similar state of infancy in 2016.

PDF Files (for download)

Smell Descriptors – Effect / adjective
Smell Category – Urban

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Castro, J. B., Ramanathan, A., & Chennubhotla, C. S. (2013). Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization. PLoS ONE, 8(9), e73289. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0073289
Dowthwaite, S. V. (2000). Odor Classification | PerfumersWorld. Retrieved August 30, 2016, from https://www.perfumersworld.com/article/odor-classification
Edwards, M. (2016). The Fragrance Wheel – Fragrances of the World. Retrieved August 30, 2016, from http://www.fragrancesoftheworld.com/FragranceWheel
Henshaw, V. (2013). Urban Smellscapes: Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments. New York: Routledge.
Linneaus (1752) in Downthwaite, S. V. (2000). Odor Classification PerfumersWorld. Retrieved August 30, 2016, from https://www.perfumersworld.com/article/odor-classification
McGinley, M in Mendrey, K. (2014, February). The Compost Odor Wheel – BioCycle BioCycle. Retrieved August 30, 2016, from https://www.biocycle.net/2014/02/21/the-compost-odor-wheel/
McLean, K. (2012). Emotion, location and the senses: A virtual dérive smellmap of Paris. Proceedings of the 8th International Design and Emotion Conference, London.
Noble, A. C. (n.d.). About the wheel. Retrieved August 30, 2016, from http://winearomawheel.com
Sperber, D., (1975) Rethinking Symbolism. Cambridge Studies in Social Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.