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There aren’t enough words in English for smells and tastes

For the past year or so, I’ve been going to the wine tasting that the local wine shop has every weekend.  [Schedule].  As a way of focusing my attention, I’ve started to write tasting notes for myself–partly so that I can remember what it was that I tasted, and partly to really pay attention to the wine.

Along the way, the guys at the shop have been very helpful with my efforts.  They usually have the descriptions of the wines that the vintners have produced.  Over the months, I’ve come to notice that all the words that “experts” use to describe wines are, in fact, similes–it tastes like black current, it smells like hay.  As I’ve been working on this, I’ve noticed that English really has remarkably few words for smells and tastes–at least appealing ones–that don’t have metaphor packaged inside.

By contrast, the vocabulary for the visual spectrum is quite large.  There is hardly a shade of color that doesn’t have it’s own word, and I don’t hear them as metaphors–what’s a mauve, or a teal [well, OK, there’s a duck, but they’re not this color], or an ecru.  I’ll admit that I’ve had my fair share of conversations along the line of “What would you call that green over there?”…[or blue]  Somehow the colors in that part of the spectrum elicit both the finest distinctions and the most argument about what the color actually is.  In your mind, how green is turquoise?

On the other hand, the words for smells and tastes don’t come to mind as readily.  Back a few months, I was tasting a pinot noir [Wild Hog, 2006, to be precise] and I perceived that there was some herbal note that I just couldn’t put a word to.  I was really struggling, and expressing my frustration, when one of the guys asked me if it was OK with me to suggest a word.  I said yes [and thanked him for asking, since I’m trying to develop a personal vocabulary for my perceptions] and then he said “dill”.  I said–effectively–eureka!–or I would have said whatever the Greek for “You’ve got it!” is.

Maybe what I’m really complaining about is that I’ve never taken the time to develop the ability to put smells and tastes into words, in the way that I can with sights or sounds.  On the other hand, if we all didn’t struggle with this vocabulary, I don’t think that there would be all these courses for people to help develop their wine-tasting skills.

A few years ago, Jeremy and I were in the Amador county [California] and we went wine-tasting at Renwood Winery.   The winery produces some very tasty zinfandel.  In order to help people perceive the various elements that are present in their wines, they had set up a “smelling bar” of wine glasses with various fragrant things that might be characteristic of a good zin…raspberries, cherry jam, chocolate, tobacco, pepper, and, from here, I think that I’m remembering something green…maybe mint?….  By going around this bar, I was able to get a noseful of the pure scent, so it was easier for me to catch a hint of it when I was smelling a glass of wine.  But this comes back precisely to my point…here, the metaphor is being made concrete.  The wine smells like chocolate literally.   First, I’m smelling the chocolate; next, I’m smelling the wine–the same scent is echoed in both. 

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3 Responses to “There aren’t enough words in English for smells and tastes”

  1. Kathryn Says:

    I’ve been off the computer for a few days, and I missed several really wonderful posts! Thanks for all of these, Bob, from Mark Doty to the words we don’t have for fragrances, through the meaning of NO. I think there are other difficulties in communicating about sexuality to people who have different orientations from ourselves (or polymorphous orientations). We may be good friends, and yet we may find that we are literally WORLDS apart from each other in terms of how we approach sex, lust, and social customs involved in coupling of one variety or another. While I always feel vive la difference (sorry, no diacritical marks available), I also notice that certain kinds of sexual behavior are simply INCONCEIVABLE to some of us. Just as we don’t have words for certain fragrances, we don’t have the imaginative capacity to embrace the very different strokes (excuse the word) that work for some folks. Some things that give some people pleasure are frightening or repellant to me, but I am perfectly willing to believe that others find these things pleasurable. No doubt some of what works for me is frightening or repellant to others. I don’t know what to do other than grin, throw my hands up in the air, and let it be a mystery.

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  3. Bob Says:

    Kendall, I’m sorry you haven’t been able to get to a computer. I always look forward to your thoughtful comments.

    One of the gifts of being gay, I think, is that I get a chance to meet people who are open about their desires of all kinds. As with other meetings across difference, I find that once I’ve gotten to know someone who’s “into” some activity, that activity stops being “perverse” and moves into the category of things that I’m not interested in–with no particular emotional charge around it. …I change my response to an offer to partake from “Ugh!” to “No, thanks.”

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  5. Kathryn Says:

    In my experience, many lesbians would rather walk the dog, read a book, or eat a sandwich than explore some of the things others are “into.” Maybe it’s my age…I just haven’t encountered many women who have been adventurous in discovering imaginative routes to erotic pleasure. But then, even Kinsey observed this. Lesbians are less likely to do what takes them several hours to do than everybody else is to do what can be polished off in ten minutes. Most lesbians I’ve known (it would be stupid to attempt to speak of or for all lesbians) are content with cuddling, and “lesbian bed death” is a well-known phenomenon. This may be why I have chosen to be celibate for so many years. Just can’t be bothered.

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