Things we smell and things they smell like: communicatively relevant odours and odorants

Thomas Poulton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


The sense of smell has been relatively neglected in the Western research. It is not regarded as particularly useful compared to the perceived importance of senses like sight, sound, and touch. Correspondingly, English speakers are ill-equipped to describe qualities of smells, instead invoking entities that share similar olfactory qualities, e.g. like roses. This raises the question: which odours do English speakers frequently refer to, and which terms describe them? This corpus-driven study looks at nouns in olfactory contexts, and the conceptual domains they fall into. Results show that speakers invoke different smells according to context: when talking about a smell they perceive, when describing a smell, or in a description of another smell, which demonstrates the differential communicative functions of smells. Further analysis shows that smells that are described are more variable than those used as descriptors, and smells being used to describe are more emotional using psychometric norming data.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)291-317
Number of pages27
JournalInternational Journal of Corpus Linguistics
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jul 2023


  • communicative need
  • English
  • olfaction
  • semantic prosody
  • smell

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