When you think of the five senses, how would you rank them, superior to inferior?
You might instinctively say that sight is the superior sense. Next, you’d probably go with hearing or touch, followed by taste or smell.
This ranking makes objective sense to you somehow, but it’s likely that social and cultural prejudice of certain senses comes into play.
Language & the Lower Order
Last week we talked about how scientists once perceived smell as of a “lower order” than all other senses. This was because, at the time, rationality was in vogue, and scent was linked with emotion.
This scientific attitude toward our senses led to less research into scent. Even our language followed suit.
Think about it.
- When someone is impressive, we might call them a visionary.
- When someone is athletic, we might call them dexterous.
- When someone is a curator, we might say they have good taste.
- When someone is musically talented, you might say they have a good ear.
But you never compliment someone’s nose or smelling abilities, and the terms for nose in our vocabulary are often derogatory (schnoz, snout, snooty, snotty, etc.).
There is no positive equivalency for the sense of smell as there are for our other four senses.
Cross-Cultural Views on Scent
The thing is, other world cultures do appreciate the power of scent. Some even hold it in the highest regard, above all others.
One example is the Onge of the Andaman Islands. This tribe defines everything primarily by smell.
For instance, seasons are named after a particular scent, largely depending on what types of flowers or fruits blossom. Their calendar is literally run by the nose.
They also personally identify according to scent. If talking about oneself, one touches the tip of his nose, which means “me” or “my odor.”
The scent-centered culture appears expresses their focus on the nose in their language.
Consider the Onge greeting:
This is the English equivalent of “How are you?” But it literally means, “How is your nose?”
Greeting & Scent
The Onge are not the only ones to hold scent in such esteem.
In Algeria, the nose – called “nif” – is synonymous with honor.
In India, greeting someone by smelling them on the head is equivalent to a hug or a kiss in the West.
Moreover, one ancient text in India reads:
“I will smell thee on the head, that is the greatest sign of tender love.”
So, it appears that, in some cultures, the link between scent and emotion makes the sense of smell even more powerful than all others.
Next week, we’ll continue this talk about culture and scent preferences.