You Smell, I Stink

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Have you ever wondered why "tasty" means that something tastes good while "smelly" means that it doesn't smell so good? What's up with that?

Manfred Krifka, eminent semanticist in Berlin, Germany, has a solution, explained in his article "A Note on an Asymmetry in the Hedonic Implicatures of Olfactory and Gustatory Terms" (2010. In Susanne Fuchs, Philip Hoole, Christine Mooshammer & Marzena Zygis (eds.), Between the regular and the particular in speech and language, 235–245. Frankfurt: Peter Lang), an impressive sounding title for a delightful little paper. It was published last year but Manfred just made it available on his website, hence this post now. Do give his paper a read!

Krifka starts his paper with a famous anecdote about Samuel Johnson:

As Samuel Johnson paused to rest on a London park bench one hot summer's day, his profusely sweating bulk caused a young woman sitting next to him to accuse him of smelling. “No, Madam,” he replied. “You smell, I stink.”

Johnson is pedantically objecting to the intransitive use of "smell" (I don't share that particular peeve) but what's interesting is that in that use, "smell" doesn't simply mean "give off a smell" but suggests that the smell is bad in some way.

What Krifka tries to understand is an asymmetry in the normal interpretation of unspecific smell-predicates versus taste-predicates. When we say that something smells, we are interpreted as saying that it doesn't smell good, whereas if we talk about it being tasty, we are interpreted as saying that it tastes good. Apart from the "tasty-smelly" pair, English doesn't allow the construction of minimal pairs. German is more productive in that respect and thus provides most of the data in Krifka's article.

In the case of the adjectives "smelly – tasty" in English, the negative and positive components seem to be part of the lexical meaning. But for the intransitive verb "smell" in English and the intransitive verbs "riechen" and "schmecken" in German, the evaluative component comes and goes. When left unspecific, they carry the evaluative component, but they are compatible with the opposite specification. "You smell nice" is perfectly fine, as is its German counterpart "Du riechst gut". And while German "das schmeckt" means "that tastes good", it is also OK to say "das schmeckt nicht so gut" = "that doesn't taste so good".

Krifka concludes that the evaluative component of these intransitive verbs is an implicature, a pragmatic enrichment that can be defused in more explicit contexts. But why should "smell" regularly be enriched to refer to bad smells, while "taste" is enriched to refer to yumminess?

Krifka's explanation is this:

The […] explanation that I would like to offer is based on the assumption that the things that we taste and the things that we smell differ systematically in how pleasant and unpleasant they are. The reason is that we have generally more control over what we put into our mouth than what enters our nose. If one guiding principle of our behavior is the maximization of pleasure, and if there are roughly equally many pleasant and unpleasant smells and tastes available, then we should draw more pleasure out of the sense that we can control, than out of the sense that we cannot control as easily. Consequently, what we taste will be more likely pleasant than what we smell. This is the condition that is known to lead to so-called I-implicatures, the enrichment of meanings to the prototypical case (cf. Levinson 2000). There are many examples that are structurally similar. For example, nurse is typically understood as ‘female nurse’ because most nurses are female, but this is not part of the lexical meaning – there is no contradiction in male nurse […]. For another example, He opened the door is understood to mean that he opened the door in a regular way, but not by smashing the door with an axe, even though we can say He opened the door with an axe. I-Implicatures are rooted in the conversational maxim called the I-Principle, which states that speakers should say as little as possible to achieve understanding. The corresponding rule for recipients is to add information that is uncontroversial, conventional and stereotypical.

This has a bit of the smell of a just-so story to me, but it appears that these are not just quirks of German and English. Apart from regaling us with tidbits such as the Mexican language Totonak being reported to have about twenty descriptive smell terms, Krifka claims that the tendency for smell predicates to be biased towards bad smells is well-known (he cites Claude Boisson. 1997. La dénomination des odeurs: variations et régularités linguistiques. Intellectica 29–49). The opposite tendency for taste predicates to be biased towards positive interpretation is discussed for the first time here in Krifka's paper. I wonder whether it holds up cross-linguistically as well.

Is it really true that most of the things we taste, taste good, since we have control over what we taste? Perhaps, but for Krifka's story to work, it also has to be true that most of the things we smell, smell bad. I'm not so sure about that. But maybe that was true during the crucial period where these meanings coalesced: after all, one hears that well into modern times, the world was much stinkier than it is right now right here in the western suburbs of Boston on a gorgeous summer's day.


  1. richard howland-bolton said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    I immediately thought of the person who puts on too much scent (presumably meaning to smell good). That can be pretty horrible for the involuntary sniffer.

  2. Kylopod said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 10:41 am

    >it also has to be true that most of the things we smell, smell bad. I'm not so sure about that.

    I think really good-smelling things, like flowers or strawberries or perfume, constitute a relatively smaller portion of our everyday experience than things like garbage, flatulation, bad breath, rotten fruit, etc. Furthermore, the bad-smelling stuff tends to be stronger (you can probably smell the trash from farther away than your garden) and has a greater tendency to stick in our mind. We seem to fear bad smells greater than we desire good smells. I suspect that's part of why smellivision never caught on.

  3. micha said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    Tasty in Hebrew is טעים (ta-eem), which should literally mean (given the template) "that which can be tasted" — however, it doesn't seem to be an implicature as it cannot be defused by context (but can be negated by overt negation)

  4. jan said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 10:58 am

    I'm not real clear on the difference between an implicature and an implication.

    [(myl) The SIL Glossary of Linguistic Terms explains that an implicature "is anything that is inferred from an utterance but that is not a condition for the truth of the utterance". The Tuebingen Introduction to General Linguistics Terms says that an implicature ("also c'onversational implicature'") is "a 'soft' inference based on an addressee's assumption that the speaker is following the conversational maxims". The Wikipedia entry for implicature explains that it "is a technical term in the pragmatics subfield of linguistics, coined by H. P. Grice, which refers to what is suggested in an utterance, even though neither expressed nor strictly implied (that is, entailed) by the utterance. […] 'Implicature' is an alternative to implication,' which has additional meanings in logic and informal language."]

    And what's the difference between a difference and a distinction?

    I wonder if there's a connection with "taste" being an aesthetic quality, as in, somebody's room being decorated tastefully. A statement might be tasteless, but I'm not sure somebody's room, or somebody's clothes, would be described as "tasteless".

    "He opened the door with an axe" has a humorous quality to it because "open" is a neutral term while "with an axe" implies violence. We'd expect a wording such as, he broke down the door, or he destroyed the door, or he tore a hole in the door with an axe.

  5. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    A favourite song of mine is »Zlempat miad« by Aniada a Noar (, on their eponymous 1st album). It includes the line:

    reden tua'
    i noch da schrift
    sog es »riecht«
    wauns sakrisch mieft

  6. Emily said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 11:04 am

    Am I alone in thinking that the word "aromatic" has a positive implicature, in contrast to "smelly"? I certainly think that "aroma" sounds more positive than "smell," whereas "stench" is strongly negative.

    On the other hand, I don't think English has equivalent words for the sense of taste– maybe "flavor" on the positive end. But I'm not sure if my intuitions are widely shared.

  7. Kylopod said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 11:15 am

    >Am I alone in thinking that the word "aromatic" has a positive implicature, in contrast to "smelly"? I certainly think that "aroma" sounds more positive than "smell," whereas "stench" is strongly negative.

    Definitely, some smell words have more positive connotations than others. Positive ones: scent, aroma, fragrance. Negative ones: smell, odor, whiff. Of course, stink and stench denote (not just connote) bad smells.

  8. DimSkip said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    I don't disagree with the premise, but perhaps there's a little more to it than just simply the issue of one sense being more under our control than the other?…

    It seems to me that smell is a precursor of taste, not vice versa. If something smells good we will be more likely to taste it and (as youngsters) we will soon compile a personal database of good vs bad smells and how they may correlate to taste.

    Sure, many things can stink yet taste good, or smell wonderful yet taste bad (even be harmful), but I'm guessing those are more the exceptions than the rule, especially once we factor in quickly mastering the concept of potential food vs obvious non-food.

    But I guess that still ultimately comes down to the simplification of one sense being more controllable than the other.

    I just think it's a little more complex than that… Smell is usually a factor in what we even decide to taste in the first place since the potential food in question must pass literally right under our noses before we can actually taste it. But I can't imagine (except for extremely rare conditions) any realistic scenarios where people would tend to taste something before they ever smell it.

    Finally, if something smells good, but tastes bad does it continue smelling good in subsequent encounters? Or if something smells bad, but tastes good do people eventually come to enjoy the smell, knowing the taste that it signals is to come? For me, I would think the smells would remain good or bad and distinct from taste evaluations (generally, I think I eat stuff that smells good on its own, but maybe I just can't tell anymore), but I can also imagine some people would come to alter their evaluation of the smell once it gets "outvoted" by the taste sensation.

    I have no idea really… just throwing it out there. Thanks. Interesting topic, something I never thought about or encountered before.

  9. Chris said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 11:33 am

    While I respect Krifka, there's something rather disappointing about his dated approach to analysis. Not a single corpora is studied. No psycholinguistics. He even mentions this: "The evidence for the implicatures present in (2) comes from asking German native speakers, but would have to be corroborated by a more serious questionnaire, as well as by corpus studies." Are these "more serious" studies planned?

    This smacks of old fashioned intuition/assumption based linguistics that I had hoped the field was moving away from.

  10. Fritzle said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 11:38 am

    There's more in German:
    es riecht = it smells (possibly bad)
    es duftet = it smells good
    es ist anrüchig = it has a (bad) smell (fig.)
    es schmeckt = it tastes (good)
    es ist geschmackvoll = it is tasteful (shows good taste, fig.)
    er hat Geschmack = he has (a good) taste (fig.)
    's hat a Gschmäckle = it has a (bad) smell (mostly fig.; in Alemannic dialects, schmecken = smell)

    And in Latin: pecunia non olet, also with implied negative.

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 11:42 am

    Is the fact that Spanish oloroso and French odorant mean 'pleasant-smelling' enough to refute Krika's argument? Or are Romance-speakers somehow different?

  12. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 11:49 am

    I don't think it has to do with how many things taste or smell bad. I think it's really simple. If it smells bad, we don't usually, durian nothwithstanding, taste it.

    So a thing that is tasty has already passed a smell test, usually, and a thing that is smelly won't be subjected to a taste test, usually. Unless it is a durian or certain types of cheese. Or lutefisk.

  13. Nathan said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 11:53 am

    I don't have good sources to cite, but isn't it the case that the roots from which stink and stench derived historically had a neutral meaning?

  14. MattF said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 12:03 pm

    An example that tends to confirm Krifka's hypothesis: when a gourmet describes a cheese as 'stinky', that's a positive attribute. When a non-gourmet says the same thing, it may or may not be positive, depending on the individual's likes and dislikes.

  15. sam said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 12:23 pm

    I.Can't we discount 'aromatic' as a euphemism of sorts? It's latinate, after all.

    II. Re: 'oloroso': I think the distinction is found in the fact that 'oler' is more comfortable (as it were) as a transitive than 'riechen' is, I think; this is based entirely on Wiktionary, as I've no way of doing corpus-based analyses of Spanish and German right now (cf. riechen and oler.) 'Oloroso' might be closer in some ways to 'scented' than to 'smelly,' perhaps.
    III. I'm a little baffled as to why Krifka didn't mention the fact that 'riechen' is cognate w/English 'reek,' as that seems to help the argument along.

  16. David Scrimshaw said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

    And then with sight, we have to specify whether something is "good looking" or "bad looking".

  17. Nick Lamb said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    The fact that things are mostly tasted voluntarily might matter in another way.

    Consensus about taste is not important. A group of people can live even in the proximity of urban dwellings without needing to agree about what tastes good. But if there is widespread disagreement about smells that could be a problem. So it's fortunate that our taste in smells is, if not identical, at least broadly similar. Rose petals smell better than burned toast, burned toast smells better than rotting flesh.

    "This smells awful" seems to me to therefore carry a stronger implication that the listener/reader will agree compared to "This tastes awful".

  18. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

    Well, there's one context where male and nurse do not overlap and where only a mother can nurse. The only exception I can think of is one of the Vikings in Erik's' Saga (if memory serves) who cut his chest with his sword so that his newly motherless child could drink his blood. That doesn't happen very often nowadays, with the shortage of Vikings and all.

    I think we discussed some time ago the lack of a word for "chewy" in German. It's usually translated as zäh, but that's an undesirable quality per se, whereas "chewy" is neutral.

  19. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

    From Monty Python's Flying Circus:

    Hitler: My dog's got no nose!
    Soldier: How does he smell?
    Hitler: Awful!

  20. Russinoff said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

    I've always thought that the profusely sweating bulk in the "You smell, I stink" incident belonged to Disraeli rather than Johnson. I've also heard the line attributed to Twain. Can anyone offer any evidence that might help clear this up?

  21. John Lawler said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    Let's not forget that physiologically, smell and taste are the same sense. I.e, the receptors for any "flavor" besides the Big 5 (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami) are nasal, and we "taste" things by smelling them in the smell lab, otherwise known as the mouth.
    Manfred's right that we can control what we put in the lab and can't control what we smell externally. But that's not the whole story.
    The biological reason why we associate smells with bad things and tastes with good is the evolutionary benefit: external smell is unavoidable, like noises, though it can be amplified, like vision. Consequently it's a useful warning sense, which can convey many different messages, most unpleasant. But the lab is activated to test what we put in our stomach, and that's something we try to optimize.
    A bad smell triggers aversive behavior while a good taste triggers attractive behavior, but the behavioral impulse is the same in both: survive

  22. LQ said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

    I agree with Chris…

    (As I recall, in Japanese, there are a couple of standard words for smell/having a smell and scent/having a scent that are neutral-to-good. In fact, naming your daughter "Kaori," with the character for "scent," isn't unusual. There are a lot of smell and taste/flavor words in Japanese, so I can't delve into it deeply enough, but…hmm.)

  23. Emily said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 1:27 pm

    @sam: I.Can't we discount 'aromatic' as a euphemism of sorts? It's latinate, after all.

    It certainly can be a euphemism. I remember a clever euphemistic (and metaphorical) use in a movie review by Roger Ebert:

    "What makes it worse is the lack of lightness from the performers, who slog glumly through their dialogue as if they know what an aromatic turkey they're stuck in."

  24. Jeff R. said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

    There is no positive word for smell (fragrant, aromatic, etc) that cannot be rendered into a negative one by preceding it with a brief conversational pause, though.

  25. Svafa said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    I wonder how much the relationship between taste and smell was considered in the study. Much of what we commonly ascribe to the sense of taste is, in fact, the working of our sense of smell.

    As something of an example, I know two people who have experienced this. One is a friend who lost her sense of smell at a young age and the other is a friend who has had multiple paranasal sinus surgeries. The latter is possibly the better example, as they have a better understanding of how things should "taste", but for a month or more after the surgery lost their sense of smell.

    When eating they could tell whether something was bitter or spicy or sour, but the flavour was nearly lost without their sense of smell. They couldn't taste the difference between pork or steak or chicken apart from the differing textures of the meat itself. Thus, during this period they tended to add lots of hot sauce to everything in an attempt to at least get some sense of taste through the tingling it caused on their tongue.

  26. Kylopod said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

    >I wonder how much the relationship between taste and smell was considered in the study.

    Well he did briefly mention the five flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami), so he was obviously aware of it. But this is a fact of science, not language. Most people think of smell and taste as separate, and that perception is reflected in our language. It's kind of like the way we still talk about the heart as the seat of emotion, and blood as the mechanism of inheritance.

  27. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

    "'riechen' is cognate w/English 'reek,' "

    Was reek always negative? My English teacher said of Shakespeare's "the breath that from my mistress reeks" that reek in those days was not as bad as it sounds to us.

    Then again, there's no doubt that Auld Reekie refers to an impressively foul and pestilential congregation of vapours.

  28. Alain Turenne said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

    @Coby Lubliner
    > French 'odorant' mean[s] 'pleasant-smelling'

    I was taught, at about eight, that 'odorant' was neutral, whereas the right word to refer to a pleasantly smelling thing was 'odoriférant'. But since, French has changed… 'Malodorant', of course, is unambiguous.

  29. Lars Clausen said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

    Data point: Danish has "dufter" for decidedly good smells, but "smager" (tastes) is normally used with a modifier and is otherwise only slightly positive. Maybe Denmark just smells nicer:)

    An interesting point from (Claude Boisson, translated by Google Translate – sorry):

    In addition, there are frequently glosses of type "strong odor or bad", so the intensity is biased for the negative: and indeed, unless otherwise specified, if a smell is strong, it is unpleasant.

    Any smell, no matter how nice, will get unpleasant if it gets strong enough. So on an X-Y coordinate system with X being bad to good and Y being strongness (going from 0), only (very roughly) a quarter of the "smell area" would be good smells.

  30. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

    How or why is the word smell in this use: "The cheese smells," different from an ergative verb, such as heal, as in "The wound heals"? In other words, how does it get away with it? There is no agent, such that there is an implied sentence like "X smelled (meaning caused the production of odor in) the cheese." Is smell the single exception among sense words? I don't see words like look, feel, or hear acting at all like smell.

  31. Eric P Smith said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 5:09 pm

    @Ben Hemmens

    As an Edinburgh man I protest! (gently).

    There are two English verbs 'reek'. The more common one outside Scotland is cognate with German riechen, and means to stink. The more common one in Scotland is cognate with German rauchen, and means to smoke. In Scotland we have the blessing "Lang may yer lum reek" – Long may your chimney smoke, that is, long may you be so prosperous as not to succumb to fuel poverty. And the nickname for Edinburgh, Auld Reekie, is definitely Old Smoky and not Old Smelly.

  32. dazeystarr said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

    @jan: "[W]hat's the difference between a difference and a distinction?"

    It seems to me that a distinction is a trait that differentiates between closely related entities. For instance, the distinction between a dromedary and a Bactrian camel is the number of humps. (I'm sure there are more distinguishing traits, but that's the big one.)

    You could also describe that as a difference, but "difference" is a wider term and can be applied to any dissimilar entities regardless of how closely related they are. For instance, there's a big difference between a camel and a can of peas.

  33. Sophie said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 7:43 pm

    One difference between the two senses I don't think has been mentioned is that a smell can refer to things other than food, but we don't normally talk about the way things taste when they are not food. Medicines, anti-nail biting varnish and bits of other people (or ourselves if the nail varnish doesn't work) are put in our mouths occasionally, but usually the things sensed orally are digestible; things sensed with the nose is a far broader range of categories.

  34. Kenny Easwaran said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 7:49 pm

    You can say that someone is a "real looker" to mean that they look good.

    I can't imagine intransitive uses of the verbs "look", "feel", or "taste" that don't come with a modifier; "sound" is a bit of an odd case because an alarm or a chime can sound, but otherwise it normally behaves more like "look", "feel", and "taste" than "smell".

  35. Carl said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 8:24 pm

    More on Japanese: nioi and kaori can both be taken as neutral 'smells' but the tendency is for kaori to be a good smell and nioi a bad smell. As for taste, aji (noun) and ajiwau (verb) don't have any obvious counterpart adjective meaning tasty, to the best of my knowledge.

  36. Tom D said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 8:27 pm

    In Ainu, phrases expressing "tasting good" are derived from a "base" form meaning, literally, "taste/flavor exists." For example:

    Keraan humi."It tastes good [and I know this because I am tasting/smelling it]."Tan cep anak mimihi ka, ciporoho ka iyotta keraan.
    "This fish's meat and roe are delicious." (lit. "the most tasty.")

    I've never encountered the opposite ("tasting bad"), and I don't have my dictionaries on me, but I'd suspect there is at least a way to say the literal opposite, as in this constructed example:

    Somo keraan."It doesn't taste good."

    But, as it is a constructed example, and I'm not a native or fluent speaker, it should be taken with a grain of salt.

    Evidentials, however, prove interesting here. Ainu has a non-visual sensory evidential. It is used for information that a speaker knows based off a sense other than sight, or heard from someone else telling them. So here, it is ambiguous whether food tastes good based off of whether the speaker is currently tasting it, or if they are smelling it.

    I've only ever encountered neutral terms for smell. For example:

    Ihurarakkar kusu ienkata etuhu turituri wa ek wa kusu, imanit aesikari hine etupuyke asirkootke akusu, soyosma hine tan wose arukaykire.
    Because [the wolf] came and was sticking its nose out above me smelling me, when I grabbed a skewer and I cruelly stabed its nostrils, [the wolf] went outside and howled like this over and over again.

    But again, I don't have my dictionary on me.

    In any case, it would be interesting to see how this plays out cross-linguistically.

  37. Joseph said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 8:32 pm

    Mr Fnortner: There could be a parallel between "The cheese smells" and "The cheese is being smelled". This works for "look" as well – "He looked good", "They looked at him". It doesn't work for "hear", but we could mention the German phrase "Es hörte so an, als ob …", which means "it sounds as if".

  38. Carolus said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 8:38 pm

    Feel taste look smell hear — all of them are sensory experiences to which we attach qualitative descriptors, from great to awful. Taste and smell are clearly the most closely related, as they use the same biological sensors, but provide different inputs. But taste is more than a different way of smelling because it also involves texture, which can be bad, indifferent, or good ("wow, that tastes and smells great, but that mushy texture — awful!"). So taste is not smelling by another name. And taste is also influenced by how things look — as in "that stew may taste great, but it looks like dog doo!") In the end, our biologically and culturally determined evaluation of 'good' and 'bad' that is attached to all sensory inputs are probably processed in the same part of the brain. Linguistic expressions are then correlated with both biology and culture, obviously. In modern times, a sentence like "he touched me" is likely to invoke a negative feeling, especially when spoken by a female, but the counterpart "she touched me" is probably interpreted as either neutral or positive. The physiological input is the same, but the cultural context often provides an important distinction (with a difference). What I'm trying to say is that the difference we attach to sensory inputs is more or less artificial, because it's all one part of the brain working with what it's got — physiology and culture. In that sense, all sensory inputs are equivalent, and any distinction between them is one with no difference.

  39. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

    @ Joseph:

    … but we could mention the German phrase
    "Es hörte so an, als ob …",

    – Es hörte sich so an,

    which means "it sounds as if".

    – it sounded as if

  40. Philip Spaelti said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 11:55 pm

    Despite what some people are claiming in Japanese 'kaori' is strictly positive. It can't be used for negative smells. (It's also a more "marked" expression, so a translation 'fragrance' is appropriate.) 'Nioi' is neutral, but in absence of qualifiers will usually be taken negatively.

  41. Aviatrix said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 1:22 am

    "Don't prepare acidic food in aluminum cookware because it tastes."

    Unmodified "taste" can be negative.

  42. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 1:24 am

    @ Eric P Smith:

    I think I was conflating Auld Reekie with a memory of – isn't there a passage in Boswell & Johnson where they have to find their way home in the dark in Edinburgh, and wade through a lot of unpleasant matter?

    It's true that the only Scottish word I remember for smelling bad is honkin'.

    Despite having spent some years in Dundee, I never got to know Edinburgh well; I was much more often in Glasgow.

  43. Matthew said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 3:40 am

    Korean follows the same pattern as English as far as the implicatures of words for taste and smell are concerned:

    mas idda (has taste) = is tasty, delicious
    mas eobda (doesn't have taste) = doesn't taste very good
    naemsae nada (gives off a smell) = is smelly, smells bad.

    Where the words for taste and smell (mas and naemsae) are 'neutral' in that they don't have a positive or negative denotation (you can say, for example, nabbun mas 'a bad taste', or joeun naemsae 'a good smell').

  44. Roberta Wedge said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 6:18 am

    We develop our sense of taste, in all its senses, over our lifetimes. Small children tend to prefer bland food: pasta, chicken, milky dishes, rice. That which delights (some) adults, such as olives and blue cheese, is not to their taste … yet. One by one, these may be added to that person's pleasure-repertoire. Smell exists at a deeper collective level; taste is created individually. Just as, by and large, our bookshelves are personal creations that reflect our preferences (I almost said "tastes" again) and interests, so our favourite flavours go on a mental shelf labelled "tasty".

    On a related note, "tasty" is a colloquialism for "sexually attractive". Is this correlation common in other languages?

  45. Roberta Wedge said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 6:18 am

    We develop our sense of taste, in all its senses, over our lifetimes. Small children tend to prefer bland food: pasta, chicken, milky dishes, rice. That which delights (some) adults, such as olives and blue cheese, is not to their taste … yet. One by one, these may be added to that person's pleasure-repertoire. Smell exists at a deeper collective level; taste is created individually. Just as, by and large, our bookshelves are personal creations that reflect our preferences (I almost said "tastes" again) and interests, so our favourite flavours go on a mental shelf labelled "tasty".

    On a related note, "tasty" is a colloquialism for "sexually attractive". Is this correlation common in other languages?

  46. Ray Girvan said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 7:23 am

    Emily: Am I alone in thinking that the word "aromatic" has a positive implicature

    Oddly enough, Mrs G and I were discussing "aromatic" yesterday. She takes it as slightly negative: to her, "aromatic" in a food description implies various kinds of spices she doesn't like, particularly star anise. Having started out in the sciences, for me "aromatic" as a description is completely contaminated by the word's meaning in chemistry.

  47. army1987 said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 7:23 am

    I think the Italian unmarked term odore is much more likely to have positive than negative connotations; for me, the prototypical instance of it is the smell of freshly prepared food. When we mean ‘stink’, we usually say so explicitly.

  48. Eric P Smith said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 8:06 am

    @ Ben Hemmens:

    Thanks. Yes, I’m afraid you’re right about Boswell & Johnson.

  49. garicgymro said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 8:38 am

    Is it really true that for this to work, most things have to smell bad? There are many things I like listening to that I don't like if I have no choice over listening to them.

  50. DimSkip said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 9:04 am

    No mention of smell, but when it comes to taste, what people report isn't very reliable (and too easily influenced by language/advertising)…

    Expectation Affects Our Food Likes and Dislikes
    By Jamie Hale for World of Psychology (
    [Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 Jul 2011]

    If people are asked to choose between two pieces of cake–chocolate cake or Belgian Black Forest Double Chocolate Cake–most will choose the latter. Which shouldn’t be a surprise. “What’s more interesting is that after trying it, people will rate it as tasting better than an identical piece of ‘plain old cake.’ It doesn’t even matter that the Black Forest is not in Belgium” (Wansink, 2006, p.124-125).

    It’s not just the brand name, but also the packaging, pricing, and advertising that shape our positive expectations.

  51. Agustin said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    Maybe tasty and smelly tell us that the objects have strong tastes or smells, and generally a strong taste is good while a strong smell is not.

  52. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

    @DimSkip: :-). Though I'd choose Belgian Black Forest Double Chocolate Cake in hopes that it it was made with a double portion of Belgian chocolate and contained cherries—and if, as it turned out, it didn't have cherries, I don't think I'd rate it very highly.

    @Rey Aman: Are you interested in an antedating for the dog-with-no-nose joke? Here's one that seems to be from 1926 (or well before Python, anyway, judging from the style). (I had relatives named Julian and Herman who must have been young men in 1926, but I'll let you decide whether the names make this version of the joke mildy anti-Semitic and thus a maledictum.)

  53. Eric P Smith said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

    There’s also the joke: "Mom, God made me upside down. My Sunday-school teacher said that God made our feet to run and our noses to smell. But my nose runs and my feet smell."

  54. Ian Preston said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

    @ Jerry Friedman: This seems even earlier, from Our Paper, Massachusetts Reformatory, Vol XXIX, 1913

    Steve – "I seen a baste in Riverdale last Sunday, Charlie, that looked like a goat but he didn't have any nose! Now, phwat de yez know about thot?"

    De Cose – "No nose? Impossible! Steve, impossible! Why, is he had no noise, how did he smell?"

    Steve – "Awful! Charlie, awful! Worse than the glue factory."

  55. Sven said,

    July 18, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

    Slavic languages do not fit in the pattern described. In B/C/S, "mirišem" has the same meanings as "I smell" – both (1) "I sense smell" and (2) "I give off a smell" – but the implication of the latter is unambiguously positive. "I stink" is "smrdim" and every native speaker understands "mirišem" (2) and "smrdim" to be antonyms. "Mirišem" can be modified with negative connotations, but sometimes such constructions can sound awkward or unnatural. A specific description like "miriše po sumporu" ("smells of sulfur") may be OK, but "loše miriši" is just a less elegant (and not even euphemistic) way to say "smrdi".

    Same thing with the noun – "miris" means both "the sense of smell" and "smell (scent)", but in the latter meaning has a clear positive connotation. Not only is it the antonym of "smrad" ("stench"), but it can even be a synonym for perfume.

    It is more complicated with words for taste, and Croatian and Serbian differ (I think Bosnian follows the Serbian pattern here). In Serbian, the noun "ukus" corresponds closely to English "taste": it means both "flavor" and "esthetic sense", has positive connotation when unmodified, and naturally takes on both positive and negative modifiers. The adjective "ukusan" means both "tasty" (flavorful) and "in good taste", and is always positive; it can only be made negative if it is explicitly negated – its antonym is "neukusan". In Croatian, "ukus" (and "ukusan") only refers to esthetic sense; "flavor" is "okus", which has a neutral connotation and no related adjective. But there is another Croatian word for flavor, "tek", which has a positive connotation (it is also part of the phrase "Dobar tek!" = "Bon appétit!") and the associated adjective, "tečan", which is always positive (does not admit negative modifiers).

    The verb associated with "ukus"/"okus" is "kušam", but it only denotes an intentional act – "I taste". (It can also mean "I attempt", especially in Croatian.) There is no verb corresponding to "this food tastes…" – you have to say "ima okus" ("has a taste").

  56. John Cowan said,

    July 19, 2011 @ 10:23 am

    Irrelevant anecdote:

    Going unexpectedly into the parlour of their house one day, Mrs. Noah Webster discovered her husband embracing their maid. "Noah, I am surprised!" she exclaimed. Webster released the maid and re-assumed his professional dignity. "No, my dear," he corrected his wife, "it is I who am surprised; you are merely astonished."

  57. Manfred Krifka said,

    July 28, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

    I am amazed at all the reactions that my little article has generated — thanks to Kai for discussing it on his blog. For those of you who found the article premature, inconclusive, meandering or whatever, please notice the genre it belongs to — it appeared in a Festschrift, for my colleague Bernd Pompino-Marschall. (Another article in this work deals with the issue, much more thoroughly researched, whether the beards are detrimental for their bearers to made themselves understood).

    I like John Lawler's "evolutionary" story, that smell warns against dangers, but notice that bitter taste is also a signal against possible detrimental substances. In any case, we would need data on many more languages to draw any such far-reaching conclusions.

    As for the situation in South Slavic (Sven), what is interesting to notice that with English "smell"/"stink" that even though "stink" means "smell badly", "smell" has no tendency to be pragmatically restricted to mean "smell good". In the article, I discuss a suggestion by Larry Horn that avoidance of "stink" (for the bad connotations) may be responsible for the extension of the once neutral term "smell."

    We should expect that the culture in which a language is spoken will have a substantial influence. Some cultures — the French, the Egyptian, the Turkish, the Persian, the Japanese — make more fuzz about smells than others (I won't mention any here), which might play a role in how these words are used.

  58. Alon said,

    July 31, 2011 @ 8:30 am

    I don't think one can get solid evidence on these topics without corpus evidence (well said, @Chris), but FWIW my introspection suggests that Spanish fits the general trend posited by the paper. To say that something 'huele', without further qualification, carries the implicature that the smell is bad (although, of course, it's possible to say 'huele bien'). There is no equivalent construction for taste (predicate-less 'sabe' is well-formed but pragmatically unacceptable), but the deverbal adjective 'sabroso' actually denotes positively-evaluated taste.

    Regarding 'oloroso', I have the feeling that in contemporary Spanish it's a literary or technical term. Google Ngrams shows it as considerably less frequent than 'sabroso', although checking their distribution across genres would require one of myl's Breakfast Experiments. A quick look at CREA shows that 360 of the 549 instances of the string oloros* come from the Fiction subcorpus, almost exactly two thirds. There are exactly the same number of instances of sabros* in the Fiction subcorpus, 360, but they represent a much lower proportion (just over 26%) of the overall 1377 hits.

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