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Olfactory Description

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Olfactory Description

"Olfactory" is a strange word that sounds like a scientist made it in a lab. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Latin language is actually to blame, as well as the English-language penchant to combine roots and endings to create something only linguists recognize. Olfactory means "about the sense of smell."

Smell, being one of our five senses, is one way to describe something. You might use an olfactory description to describe in any number of situations to convey the sense of smell to someone else.

Definition of Olfactory Description

Like with any of the five modes of sensory description, the olfactory description is just one way to engage the reader.

An olfactory description describes how something smells.

An olfactory description tells you how something smells, whether literal or figurative.

Purpose of Olfactory Description

Like the other sensory descriptions, you use the olfactory description to engage readers' memories and emotions.

The olfactory description has a simple bag of tricks. Olfactory descriptions usually describe simple objects, often within visual range. Here's a simple olfactory description.

The harbor trash smelled like balsamic vinegar and fish sticks.

However, olfactory descriptions can also be used figuratively to describe how someone might detect emotion in someone else. In this way, the sense of smell is sometimes used to describe the “sixth sense.”

He reeked of fear.

How to Identify an Olfactory Description

To identify an olfactory description, look out for the key verb “to smell,” the nouns “smell” and “scent,” and also look for context clues.

Context clues occupy the space around the target description. They contextualize the place, time, and reason for the description.

In simple uses of the olfactory description, the context will be somebody smelling something.

The rose smelled divine.

Even if something has no particular scent—let’s say a DVD—describing that DVD as “smelling like nothing” is an olfactory description because it involves how something smells. Look out for those keywords like “smell” and “scent."

Context clues provide a special service to readers. Not only can they clarify how something “smells” on the surface, but they can contextualize the emotional meaning of a smell. In other words, context clues can help you understand the deeper meaning of a description.

He hadn’t been to his favorite uncle’s house in years. The scent of moth-eaten linens and a rotting foundation was incredible to him.

Using context clues, we understand how “moth-eaten linens” and “a rotting foundation” can smell “incredible.” It’s because this character hasn’t been to this house in years, and it’s the house of their favorite uncle. Likely the character has fond memories of this place. These familiar scents may have a pleasant, nostalgic connotation.

Use context clues to learn all you can about sensory descriptions and how they impact the characters, the narrative, and the themes of a story or passage.

Olfactory Description Examples

You can divide these into two categories: objective and subjective.

Objective Olfactory Descriptions

An objective olfactory description is matter-of-fact. It describes how something smells, plain and simple.

The water had a floral scent.

The orange smelled ripe.

The book smelled freshly printed.

Notice that none of these examples are opinions, really. The objective olfactory description is intended to communicate what something smells like, as a fact.

Subjective Olfactory Description Examples

A subjective olfactory description is opinionated. It is more interpretable than an objective olfactory description.

The durian smells amazing.

Olfactory description, Subjective Olfactory Description, Durian StudySmarterFig.1 - The durian smells amazing... or does it?

No, the durian has a putrid scent!

More than most other sensory descriptions, olfactory descriptions are opinionated. It’s just something about people: some things smell good or fine to some people, while those same things can smell not so good to other people. The durian is a great example.

Here are some more subjective olfactory descriptions:

Skunks don’t smell that bad from a distance.

Barns smell good and earthy.

Rain makes things smell funny.

All of these examples are a matter of opinion. Someone could easily disagree. If a conclusion is highly contentious, it is a clear indicator of a subjective description.

Figurative Olfactory Description

A figurative olfactory description describes how something tastes by comparing it to something else. Either the subject is not tangible or the description is metaphorical.

Figurative Olfactory Descriptions of Emotions and Ideas

In common terms, a human’s “sixth sense” is a human’s ability to sense something not directly perceptible with a sensory organ.

For example, someone might sense someone is lying to them, due to their body language. Or, someone might sense they are in danger due to prior experiences and observations, even if they don’t see anything dangerous at the moment. In neither of these examples is “a lie” or “something dangerous” directly perceivable. Thus they are perceived with the sixth sense, also known as a gut feeling.

The mere existence of a sixth sense is disputed, to say the least. However, in literature, you will find the sixth sense referenced all the time, often with use of figurative olfactory descriptions.

I smell his fear.

She smelled something fishy about the situation.

The ogre couldn’t smell the danger lurking right under his nose. There were elven archers hidden in the trees.

In these examples, the object of smell isn’t tangible. Even in the last example, the ogre can’t smell danger, which is an idea. You may ask, can’t he smell or see the archers, though? Maybe, but seemingly not. It is implied that the archers are hidden well enough not to be perceptible, and that the ogre must rely on its sixth sense to detect danger at this point.

Olfactory description, Figurative olfactory description, Ogre StudySmarterFig. 2- Even ogres have a "sixth sense"

As you can also see in these examples, the sixth sense is often represented by the sense of smell. When you find examples of the sixth sense in passages, identify whether or not they use figurative olfactory descriptions to communicate the gut check.

Descriptions of the sixth sense might use any of the five sensory descriptions, however, so don’t jump to conclusions! Always check for key words and phrases in the context clues.

Figurative Olfactory Descriptions Using Simile and Metaphor

Most olfactory descriptiions involve a literal scent, but not all. Some descriptions will use simile and metaphor to describe a scent.

Simile and metaphor, often confused for one another, are both literary devices used by writers of both fiction and nonfiction. They both describe something by comparing it to something else. A simile compares two seemingly unlike things to point out their similarities, whereas a metaphor states that one thing is another.

Simile: The smell of Sam’s cologne hit me like an ocean liner.

Metaphor: How did Sandy smell? For a dog, she was an award-winner.

In these examples, a scent is likened to something else in order to clarify, exaggerate, or add flair to the description.

Figurative Olfactory Descriptions of Emotions and Ideas

Put it all together for some serious olfactory overload. Relate intangible things (like emotions and ideas) with the smell of something:

She was so close to her dream she could smell it.

I could smell his distrust of me; it was extreme like the scent of ten thousand pickled durians.The idea that Raynor had a crush on me smelled fishy to begin with.

Have fun but not too much: When using metaphors and similes in descriptions, writers can make the mistake of including mixed metaphors. Mixed metaphors combine multiple metaphors to nonsensical effect. These often occur when a writer gets carried away with being creative. Here is an example of a mixed metaphor: “Serra was my angel, rooting me to the ground with her.” This is absurd because, iconically, angels fly. A better metaphor would be, “Like a stoic tree of a thousand years, Serra rooted me to the ground with her.” Now the metaphor makes sense.

Here is a simple olfactory mixed metaphor: “He smelled like a million bucks.” Money doesn’t smell particularly good, which is kinda at odds with the point of the metaphor, which is complimentary. Wealthy people's clothes don’t connotatively smell any better than average people's clothes, either, so the metaphor fails in that regard as well. The reason you say “He looked like a million bucks” is because finery costs a lot of money, and it looks good. Money itself also looks appealing to most people, so there is no tension in that respect, either.

When to Use Olfactory Description

When writing an essay, you are unlikely to use olfactory description at all. For the odd scientific report about formaldehyde, you will, but 99.99% of the time you will find stronger forms of evidence to support your thesis. If you are writing a literary analysis, there is of course the chance that an olfactory sensory description plays an important part of the plot or theme.

When writing a creative story, use the olfactory description like you’d use any of the other sensory descriptions: to clarify objects, settings, and characters. The more foreign a subject, or the more important it is to the plot, the more likely you will want to describe it.

As you go along writing, usually it’s not a matter of picking which sensory description is best at any given time. You’ll likely have opportunities to employ all the sensory descriptions, after all! Rather, it’s a matter of being well-rounded. You will use visual descriptions more than all the others put together, but don’t give up auditory, gustatory, olfactory, and tactile descriptions. They can add a huge amount of depth and realism to your story!

Olfactory - Key Takeaways

  • An olfactory description is any description concerned with how something smells.
  • To identify an olfactory description, look out for the key verb “to smell,” the nouns “smell” and “scent,” and also look out for context clues.
  • There are objective, subjective, and figurative olfactory descriptions. Bear in mind that the sixth sense is often described using the sense of smell.
  • You might use olfactory descriptions in an essay, particularly in a literary analysis if olfactory sensory description plays an important part of the plot or theme.
  • In a creative story, use olfactory descriptions along with the other uncommon sensory descriptions to add depth and realism to your story. Don't rely solely on visual descriptions.

Frequently Asked Questions about Olfactory Description

An olfactory description, which describes how something smells, is used to engage the reader’s memories and emotions.

An example of an olfactory description is: "The water had a floral scent."

Olfactory means "about the sense of smell."

The purpose of olfactory description, like the other sensory descriptions, is to engage readers' memories and emotions.

A few words that denote olfactory description are smell, scent, aroma, foul, stench, stink, and so on.

Final Olfactory Description Quiz

Question

An olfactory description is any description concerned with how something _____.

Show answer

Answer

Smells

Show question

Question

Can olfactory descriptions be used figuratively?

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Answer

Yes.

Show question

Question

What is a context clue?

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Answer

Context clues occupy the space around the target description. They contextualize the place, time, and reason for the description.

Show question

Question

What sort of clues indicate you are reading an olfactory description?

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Answer

Key verbs such as “to smell,” as well as the nouns “smell” and “scent."

Show question

Question

If something has no scent, to describe its 'scent' is not an olfactory description.

True or false?


Show answer

Answer

False. Even if something has no particular scent—let’s say a DVD—describing that DVD as “smelling like nothing” is an olfactory description because it involves how something smells. Look out for those keywords like “smell” and “scent”!

Show question

Question

What can context clues tell you about a story?

Show answer

Answer

Use context clues to learn all you can about sensory descriptions and how they impact the characters, the narrative, and the themes of a story or passage.

Show question

Question

What is an objective olfactory description?

Show answer

Answer

A description of how something actually smells.

Show question

Question

How is a subjective olfactory description different from an objective one?

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Answer

Subjective descriptions are more opinionated.

Show question

Question

If a description is contentious, is it subjective?

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Answer

Yes.

Show question

Question

A figurative olfactory description describes how something tastes by comparing it to _____.


Show answer

Answer

Something else

Show question

Question

What is the "sixth sense"?

Show answer

Answer

In common terms, a human’s “sixth sense” is a human’s ability to sense something not directly perceptible with a sensory organ.

Show question

Question

"I smell their fear."

Is this an example of a non-figurative olfactory description?

Show answer

Answer

No. 

Show question

Question

"The smell of Sam’s cologne hit me like an ocean liner."


Is this an olfactory description using metaphor?

Show answer

Answer

No, it uses simile. Notice the use of "like."

Show question

Question

What is a mixed metaphor?

Show answer

Answer

Mixed metaphors combine multiple metaphors to nonsensical effect.

Show question

Question

When will you use olfactory description in an essay?

Show answer

Answer

For the odd scientific report about formaldehyde, you will, but 99.99% of the time you will find stronger forms of evidence to support your thesis. If you are writing a literary analysis, there is of course the chance that an olfactory sensory description plays an important part of the plot or theme.


Show question

Question

Which of the following words does not indicate an olfactory description?

Show answer

Answer

Hear.

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Question

The ultimate purpose of an olfactory description is to … 

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Answer

Engage readers' memories and emotions.

Show question

Question

What kind of olfactory description is used below?


She smelled the faint scent of oatmeal softly cooking in the kitchen, and it smelled like home.

Show answer

Answer

Figurative.

Show question

Question

What kind of olfactory description is used below?


The house smelled like a mixture of cigarettes and the cat's litter box.


Show answer

Answer

Objective.

Show question

Question

What kind of olfactory description is used below?


I sensed his confusion; it was written all over his face.

Show answer

Answer

There is no olfactory description used here.

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