Words of love?

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For my sins, I was recently appointed to the Linguistic Society of America's Public Relations Committee. This is a new venture for the LSA, and boy, do we have a lot to learn. This was brought home to me, yet again, when I read Sarah Kershaw's "A Viagra Alternative to Serve by Candlelight", NYT 2/9/2010:

[T]he chocolate fondue offered on the Valentine menu at MidAtlantic in Philadelphia comes with a possible secret weapon for anyone trying to put a man in an amorous frame of mind: doughnuts. But don’t be too quick to load up, because according to one study, male sexual response was heightened by the scent of doughnuts only if it was combined with licorice, not exactly a standard pairing. (The only combination of fragrances the study found to be more potent is perhaps even less common: lavender and pumpkin pie.)

Intrigued, I read on, and discovered that in the cited "study",

[V]aginal and penile blood flow was measured in 31 men and women who wore masks emitting various food aromas. This was the study that found men susceptible to the scent of doughnuts mingled with licorice. For women, first place for most arousing was a tie between baby powder and the combination of Good & Plenty candy with cucumber. Coming in second was a combination of Good & Plenty and banana nut bread.

The study, conducted by the Smell and Taste Research Foundation in Chicago, also found that the aroma of cherries caused a sharp drop in excitation among women, as did the smell of meat cooked over charcoal.

(I was going to point with alarm to the apparent absence of linguistic researchers with the equipment needed to measure vaginal and penile blood flow, but this would no doubt result in a series of cruel jokes in the comments section, so let's pretend that I didn't mention it.)

Kershaw's article then walks these fascinating results back a bit, though perhaps not quickly enough to forestall a run on cucumbers and Good & Plenty at markets worldwide:

Alan R. Hirsch, who conducted the experiments, said the responses did not prove that the scent of pumpkin pie was an ingrained physiological response that would lead the average man to enjoy all the benefits of increased penile blood flow. Indeed, he suggested, the scents could have invoked potent memories for his small sample of subjects, like a Thanksgiving-weekend fling many years ago, or a bad experience with cherries.

Anyhow, a quick web search showed some other topical references to Hirsch's work, generally without any caveats, e.g. "Romantic dinner starts with alluring, sensuous cuisine", St. Louis Globe-Democrat 2/10/2010

Cinnamon, ginger and clove, the spices found in pumpkin pie spice have profound effects according Dr Alan Hirsch at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, reporting men find its aroma particularly arousing. Hirsch’s aroma hot button short list for women? Cucumbers and Good and Plenty Candies.

I figured that all this must be the result of a recently-published study about smell and sexual arousal. And since the LSA PR committee has recently been trying to learn to navigate the ecology of flack and hacks, I thought I'd look at this one for some additional guidance in how the game is played. However,  I couldn't find any press releases in the usual places, nor did a search of Google Scholar for the author's name and various plausible keywords turn up anything recent.

In fact, looking at the author's web page suggests that the research in question actually dates from the late 1990s: Hirsch, A.R. and Kim, J.J.: "Effects of Odor on Penile Blood Flow-A Possible Impotence Treatment," Psychosomatic Medicine 57(1), 1995; Hirsch, A.R.: "Scent and Sexual Arousal," Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality 1(3):9-12 1998; Hirsch, A.R., Gruss J., Bermele C, Zagorski D, and Schroder, M.A., "The Effects of Odors on Female Sexual Arousal" , Psychosomatic Medicine, 60:95 1998; Hirsch, A.R., and Gruss, J.J.: "Human Male Sexual Response to Olfactory Stimuli," J. Neurol. Orthop. Med. Surg. 19:14-19 1999; Hirsch A.R. "Smell and Sexual Arousal", in Frederick F.J (ed.), Encyclopedia of Food Science and Technology, 1999.

There are also some patents ("Use of odorants to treat male impotence, and article of manufacture therefor", U.S. Patent 5885614, filing date feb. 23, 1996; "Use of odorants to alter blood flow to the vagina, and article of manufacture therefor", U.S. Patent 7108872, filing date Nov 7, 2000), and a popular book, Scentsational Sex: The Secret to Using Aroma for Arousal, 1998.

Ten or fifteen years later, the nation's mass media still feature Dr. Hirsch in the run-up to Valentine's Day. Now, that's public relations!

But where are the linguistic studies with titles like "Words of love: Lexicographical influences on vaginal blood flow", or "Raising to subject position: Erectile dysfunction and grammatical agency"? I bet the authors would score a couple of decades of Valentine's Day interviews, never mind the patent rights.

For an LSA talk a few years ago, I even mocked up a magazine cover — unfortunately, there's still no content to back it up.

Dr. Hirsch has something to teach us in areas other than sex. His other publications include Hirsch, A.R.: "Effect of an Ambient Odor on Slot-Machine Usage in a Las Vegas Casino", Chemical Senses 18(5) 1993; ; Hirsch, A.R. "Effects of Garlic Bread on Family Interactions", Psychosomatic Medicine, 62(1):103-104, 2000; Hirsch, A.R., Ye Y., Lu Y., Choe M., "The Effects of the Aroma of Jasmine on Bowling Score", International Journal of Essential Oil Therapeutics, 1(2): 79-82, 2007; and so on.

Deborah Tannen has the "family interaction" stuff covered. But as far as I know, Vegas and bowling are pretty much virgin territory, linguistically speaking.

[Update — since a few readers seem to be taking the smell/arousal stuff somewhat seriously, I thought I'd better follow my nose, so to speak, and check it out.

In the body of the post, I noted four apparently-relevant journal articles cited on Dr. Hirsch's web page (along with some book chapters that I'll leave to someone else to track down). Three of these citations are so obscure as to raise the question of whether they actually exist, while one of them is a short conference abstract describing some apparently-underwhelming research.

The first article (Hirsch, A.R. and Kim, J.J.: "Effects of Odor on Penile Blood Flow-A Possible Impotence Treatment," Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol. 57, No. 1, 1995, p. 83) must be wrongly cited, because there is no such article in volume 57, issue 1 of Psychosomatic Medicine, nor indeed (as far as I can determine by searching the journal's web site, PubMed, and Google Scholar) in any other issue of that or any other journal.

The second article (Hirsch, A.R.: "Scent and Sexual Arousal," Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality, Vol. 1, No. 3, June, 1998, p. 9-12) is also a puzzle. There are other online citations to a journal named "Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality", but the National Library of Medicine thinks that it ceased publication in 1992. And the title "Scent and sexual arousal" is not indexed in PubMed, and shows up on Google Scholar only in the bibliography of another of Dr. Hirsch's articles, and in one of his patents.

I'm happy to say that the third article (Hirsch, A.R., Gruss J., Bermele C, Zagorski D, and Schroder, M.A.: "The Effects of Odors on Female Sexual Arousal." Psychosomatic Medicine, Vol. 60, 1998, p. 95) does exist in a form that I can verify — it's one of the Abstracts of Papers for the 1998 Annual Meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society. Here's the abstract:

While odors have been demonstrated to impact on male sexual arousal, as measured by changes in penile blood flow, the analogous study in women has not been done. To determine this, the effect of odors on vaginal blood flow was ascertained. Nineteen nonmenstruating, nonanorgasmic women were studied. The average age was 31.8 years. Eight were single, seven married, and four divorced. They were on no medications. All scored normosmic on the University of Pennsylvania Smell Identification Test. Vaginal blood flow was measured while subjects sequentially wore eight surgical masks impregnated with odors and two blank masks which served as controls. Surgical masks were applied in a double blind randomized fashion. Vaginal blood flow was measured for 1 minute followed by a three minute odor free interval. The effect of odor was calculated based on changes from the average of the blood flow while wearing the blank masks. Vaginal blood flow changes were as follows:

Since some odors in nonanorgasmic women enhance vaginal blood flow, the evaluation of odors for the treatment of sexual arousal disorders in women may be warranted.

I note that there were only eight odors tested, so only a tiny portion of the odor space was involved; and we don't get standard deviations or any other indication of inter-subject consistency.

The fourth article (Hirsch, A.R., and Gruss, J.J.: "Human Male Sexual Response to Olfactory Stimuli," J. Neurol. Orthop. Med. Surg., Vol. 19, 1999, p. 14-19) again frustrated my attempts to track it down. The Journal of Neurological and Orthopaedic Medicine and Surgery apparently does (or did?) exist, with offices located at 2320 Rancho Drive, Suite 108, Las Vegas NV 89102-4592, but apparently it does not have a web site, the National Library of Medicine doesn't index it, ISI's Journal Citation Reports doesn't list it, the University of Pennsylvania Library doesn't subscribe to it, and in general it seems to have, shall we say, a rather low profile, despite the fact that 14 of Dr. Hirsch's publications have appeared there.]


  1. Mark P said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 11:24 am

    I like donuts, but licorice simply doesn't do it for me. Does that mean I have deviant sexual tendencies?

    I suppose there could be some glimmer of substance to this. There are a number of references to the strong effect of the sense of smell on memory and emotion. But surely, since the pen is mightier than the sword, words can be at least as powerful as donuts, licorice, lavender and pumpkin.

    As for the lack of content to back up the magazine cover, I think if you circulate the cover alone you ought to be able to get a few stories in the NYT.

  2. John said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    The effects on talking dirty on penile blood flow?

    I think there are entire industries based on this.

  3. Lane said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    Well, it may be "for your sins", but as a journalist I really can't think of anyone better to publicize how linguists think to the media. Of course many journalists will still screw up and write stupid stories, but they'll write fewer if the input they get from the discipline is sensible. Good luck…

  4. Paul said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    Can anyone see "moist" coming? Wordgasm!

  5. MattF said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    Would it be mean for me to suggest that Dr. Hirsch has a… little problem? Maybe the formal terminology would be "Synesthetic Paraphilia"?

  6. Comwave said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    What about perfumed grammar or fragrant words? Listening, Chanel?

  7. Ken Grabach said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    Am I alone in finding the combinations 'doughnuts and licorice' and 'Good n' Plenty and cucumber or banana nut bread' to be incongruous? Either as linguistic, or amorous constructs? Or menu combinations?

  8. Jeff DeMarco said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

    Is there a difference between the smells of licorice and Goon 'n' Plenty candy? That would be a pretty subtle distinction.

    (Bravo to Mark P for "since the [pen is] mightier than the sword")

  9. Chandra said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

    I'd love to overhear a grocery-store customer explaining to the cashier that they're stocking up on cucumbers in the hopes of getting their girlfriend in the mood…

  10. Mark P said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    Jeff DeMarco, somehow I could picture a fake Sean Connery saying that.

  11. Comwave said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    @Jeff DeMarco

    YOU smelled the words, so Bravo to YOU!

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

    (Bravo to Mark P for "since the [pen is] mightier than the sword")

    "Beneath the rule of men entirely great…"

  13. empty said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

    No surprise if men and women are attracted to the shape of a doughnut and a cucumber respectively.

  14. Craig said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

    I have to agree with @Jeff Demarco. To quote WIkipedia: "Good & Plenty is an American brand of licorice candy." So both the men and the women were aroused by combinations containing licorice. It seems that exploring the physiological effects of anethole (key flavor component in licorice, anise, and fennel) might make a worthwhile followup study.

  15. Andrew said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 8:34 pm

    The instrument used for measuring increases in penile bloodflow is called a penile plethysmograph. While I believe that some linguists have used plethysmographs (of much larger sorts), the kind attached to penises has mostly been used in research on sex offenders. Using it for smells is, as far as I know, less commonly done…

  16. sh said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

    The Journal of Neurological and Orthopaedic Medicine and Surgery apparently does (or did?) exist, […] but apparently it does not have a web site, the National Library of Medicine doesn't index it, ISI's Journal Citation Reports doesn't list it, the University of Pennsylvania Library doesn't subscribe to it, and in general it seems to have, shall we say, a rather low profile, despite the fact that 14 of Dr. Hirsch's publications have appeared there.

    The American Academy of Neurological and Orthopaedic Surgeons does have a website. On the publications page it says:

    "The Journal of Neurological and Orthopaedic Medicine and Surgery is not currently available in hardcopy-print format. The Journal is distributed and available in electronic format. All archived articles will soon be available and readily searchable online."
    On the same page under "Select Articles from Archived Issues of the Journal" they even list the Hirsch article – but when you click on the link you only get a 404 error.

    Very strange!

  17. Rubrick said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

    I was intrigued by "nonanorgasmic". A fine example of how multiple negatives don't merely cancel. A nonanorgasmic woman is definitely not quite the same as an orgasmic woman.

  18. Dan S said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 11:49 pm

    A recommendation to all fellow LL fans: If you've not yet done so, check out MYL's 3-year old LSA talk. (The one featuring the magazine cover, via the link just after the cover-image above.) Very important in it's own right, as an assessment of the field, it's also directly relevant to the LSA PR challenge.

    Good luck in that, Professor L! Your 2007 talk positions education as a major opportunity. Perhaps, if only as a start towards reducing the damage being done, you could publicize an LSA-approved alternative to S&W?

  19. Marcel Proust said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 4:06 am

    No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place…

  20. Anitha said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 4:41 am

    Altogether highly thought provoking//although i must admit cucumbers does nothing to me.

  21. Fred said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 5:10 am

    Jeff DeMarco: "… Goon 'n' Plenty candy …"

    Would that be anything like an Eccles cake?

  22. Graeme said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 8:07 am

    The linguistic aspect of all this eludes me.

    So in the spirit of 'anything goes'…

    Nothing compared with the combination of liquorice and a decent pinot/red burgundy.

  23. Jorge said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    Is "nonanorgasmic" like "nonagenerian"? I know some women can have multiple orgasms, but as many as ninety? Wow!

    [(myl) No, the morphology is clearly non+an+orgasmic, to be glossed "not unable to experience orgasm".]

  24. Acilius said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    Great post, but what's the point of your reference to Deborah Tannen? It looks like you are equating her work with that of Hirsch. I know you have some bones to pick with Tannen, but surely it's going overboard to lump her into this category.

    [(myl) In fact, I meant no negative implication at all. Linguists need to find better ways to connect first-rate linguistic research to things that the general public cares about, and Deborah Tannen does a wonderful job of this.

    My first reaction to the various V-day stories about aphrodisiac odors was "gee, look what a good job this researcher is doing at public relations. What can we learn from this?" Then I discovered that the research was 10-15 years old, and I was even more impressed. Then it began to appear that the research was in fact tenuous to the point of near non-existence, and my admiration for the PR skills involved was raised even higher, as my opinion of the science behind it fell lower.

    But what this shows, I think, is not that PR effectiveness and scientific value are relatively independent, not that they are inversely correlated. Many academics have the prejudice that good PR must be a sign of bad scholarship. This is perniciously false, in my opinion. A corollary of this prejudice is the view that topics of great public interest are intrinsically suspect, and this view is just as false, and even more pernicious.

    My quip about Vegas and bowling was seriously meant. There's been some serious lexicographical work on baseball and some other sports, but as far as I know, the rich idioms of various forms of gambling are poorly documented in comparison. If there's good work on the ethnography of bowling, it's not well enough known for me to have heard of it (in contrast to Geertz's work on cock-fighting, for example). And the sociolinguistic description of trash-talking and similar activities in sports is another surprising lacuna, in contrast to the literature on "the dozens".]

  25. mollymooly said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

    Is it really the case that the scent of cherries is unappealing? Might it not be rather that what is most appealing is the scent of cherries being taken away?

  26. Simon Spero said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    I initially read the cover as "Erotetic logic". How sad is that?

  27. Mary Kuhner said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    How on earth did they pick those eight scents? They are totally bizarre! Why would you start with a compound scent and not a single one (e.g. lavender, not lavender + pumpkin pie)? Also, "perfume"? The perfume industry would be infuriated to discover that it doesn't matter what kind you use….

    Anyway there's nothing here without some measurement of statistical significance. (Which would be complicated by the fact that I bet presentation order matters a *lot*–the woman is sitting on this apparatus for a long time over the course of the experiment, and that's got to affect her–and while they did randomize it, you can't randomize that many presentation orders over only 19 trials very well.)

    This looks like it was meant for the Journal of Irreproducible Results.

    [(myl) Indeed. Note that noise in the interpretation of vaginal photoplethysmography is apparently a general and complex problem, as indicated by this passage in Nicole Prause & Erick Janssen, "Blood flow: vaginal photoplethysmography",

    Part of the difficulty in deciphering what vaginal pulse amplitude represents lies in its lack of an absolute scale. Since the scale is relative and no published calibration method exists, the use of vaginal pulse amplitude in between-subjects designs requires caution when drawing conclusions. Vaginal pulse amplitude has not been shown to represent any specific physiologic process or event, and may in fact reflect multiple physiologic processes or events. Disentangling which components of vaginal pulse amplitude indicate which physiologic phenomena would allow researchers to select filters more accurately, according to the specific phenomenon they wish to investigate.

    Artifacts in vaginal pulse amplitude are common and variable in appearance. The detection of artifacts is not standardized, and the procedures used often are not described in research
    publications. Movement artifacts are inferred when the signal has sudden, strong fluctuations in amplitude. Not only distinct body movements (such as sitting back in a chair), though, but
    also less conspicuous behaviors (such as tensing one’s abdominal or pelvic muscles, or crossing one’s ankles) can affect the vaginal photoplethysmograph’s output,33,34 and these artifacts are not always as easy to detect. They may increase or decrease the amplitude, cause a basal shift, or obliterate the signal for a period of time. […] As a result, artifacts threaten the validity of vaginal pulse amplitude data, and ignoring their presence or editing them in inconsistent or ill-defined ways could render vaginal pulse amplitude findings unreliable.


  28. Nick Barrowman said,

    November 24, 2010 @ 12:35 am

    Mark Liberman wrote:

    The fourth article (Hirsch, A.R., and Gruss, J.J.: "Human Male Sexual Response to Olfactory Stimuli," J. Neurol. Orthop. Med. Surg., Vol. 19, 1999, p. 14-19) again frustrated my attempts to track it down.

    It seems to be available at: http://www.aanos.org/jrl_an_article.htm

    [(myl) Wow. Complete with the cheesiest animated gif I've ever seen:


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