Smells Like Words

July 22, 2013 | 29 5 min read

I don’t know what a rose smells like, though when I hold my nose to a full-blown bloom and inhale deeply, I sense a vague sweetness.

I don’t know what my husband’s shirt smells like. If he died, I wouldn’t think to sleep in it so I could feel that he was with me.

I don’t know what a baby’s head smells like—not my babies, not anyone else’s babies. I couldn’t pick my babies out of a crowd with my eyes closed, and I don’t miss that baby smell when I hug my growing children.

I don’t know the smell of feet, chalk, lilacs, gardenias, sour milk, rain, new cars, Chanel No. 5, Old Spice, greasepaint, or napalm.

I don’t know what old books smell like. I don’t know what new books smell like either.

I learned smells from books, which made me think they were fictional. I believed that Wilbur’s barn smelled of hay, manure, the perspiration of tired horses, and the sweet breath of patient cows, and that the salty brown smell of frying ham made Almanzo even hungrier. But when real people said That stinks, or I can smell the sea from here, or I can’t stand the smell of cilantro, I thought they were faking. I assumed that, like me, they knew from books that there were smells and things were supposed to have them. Unlike me, I decided, they were willing to pretend those smells existed beyond the page. As I try to write out this logic, it seems tortuous, but it wasn’t something I ever questioned; it was something I knew. I could not smell the things I read in books, so it was impossible that anyone else could, which meant they must be making it up.

I realized I was wrong when I had children. Too young to read or fake it, they smelled poop and thought it was yucky, vanilla and thought it was sweet, dinner cooking and couldn’t wait to eat. As they gained words for odors, I finally lost the sense of smell I never knew I should have had.

Poop became my leitmotif. I lived in fear that my babies would have dirty diapers and everyone would know but me. Dozens of times a day, I weighed their saggy bottoms in my hand, peered down the backs of their pants or up the leg holes of their onesies, using replacement senses I never quite trusted for the seriousness of the task at hand.

Now weed has replaced poop in my parental anxiety of smell. Is it called skunk because that’s what it smells like? I wouldn’t know. My children could come home reeking of it, and I still wouldn’t know.

I only discovered the word for people like me a few years ago. We are anosmic; we have anosmia: lack of the sense of smell.

Sometimes anosmia is defined as loss of the sense of smell.  When people lose their sense of smell, they wax irate and nostalgic. They write articles in the New York Times about the tragedy and danger of not being able to smell burnt toast and how their friends don’t understand. They write books about traveling the world, searching for smell. They almost always regain what they have lost, because that is the nature of narratives of loss: you lose, you suffer, you recover.

Then there are those of us who never had what we’ve supposedly lost.

Our friends don’t understand us either.  What do you mean you can’t smell? they ask.

I can smell, I say. A bit. I smell frying onions, garlic, pine forests, and cigarettes. But not new-mown grass. I only know the grass has been mown when I see the drifts of clippings. And I can’t smell all the things you say you smell, the nuances and differences, the specifics. I can smell citrus, but not orange, lemon, lime, pink grapefruit. I can smell too much perfume, but not whether it is Chanel No. 5 or Justin Bieber’s Girlfriend. I can smell bad, but I can’t say what’s making it bad. Sometimes you screw up your face and cover your nose, and I smell nothing.

How can you taste, they ask, if you can’t smell?

I can taste. I taste delicious and disgusting, how dark the chocolate is, the difference between dark and milk, bad shrimp, lemon, the sting of salt and vinegar potato chips, the vicissitudes of oysters from different waters. I can’t taste rosemary, thyme, oregano, the dreaded and beloved cilantro, or the difference between organic and what you buy at the corner store. I can’t identify what creates a taste. You will never hear me say, Was this grilled over mesquite? or Did you use Lipton Onion Soup?

I have a friend who is a gourmet. He reads the descriptions on wine lists and chooses dark cherries, cedar, and pipe tobacco over earth, pepper, and spice. I read the descriptions on wine lists and think they sound like poetry. My friend had an operation on his ear and when he awoke, he could not smell. He could taste, he said, but everything tasted muted. That’s it, I said, that’s my life. I smell, I taste, but the books, the menus, the reports from the world of smell and taste make it clear that my spectrum is limited, that everyone else has access to realms I cannot fathom.

My friend recovered from his operation and reentered the world of the odorously-abled. I make my older daughter sniff my younger daughter to see if she needs a bath.

When I was a child, reading a book a day, I wondered if the entire world was a big complicated book – a novel, Dickensian perhaps – being read by a giant. What if what we thought we were living was just what he was reading?

In fact, the world has always seemed something like a book to me, a sphere – or rectangular prism – in which I am immersed, but to which I never quite fully belong. Oh, I jump at sudden noises and cry when I bump my head. I have dear friends and terrible conflicts. I marvel at the miraculous perfection of my children and rage at injustice. And yet, I do not feel my children’s pain; if they need to be held down for a shot, I hold them. I rarely cry at funerals. I am good in a crisis, able to see what needs to be done and then to do it, regardless of material or emotional chaos. I am a fearless editor, of others and myself: I kill darlings with impunity, hewing certainty and nuance out of tentative verbiage, without sentimentality or regret. Pain and crisis, but also triumph and celebration: it never feels quite real to me, or perhaps it feels only as real as my books.

I wonder, sometimes, if this sense of distance, of the unreality of the real, has to do with anosmia. Unable to smell danger (sour milk, gas, cyanide) or comfort (chicken soup, home, the people I love), am I missing a fundamental tether that holds other people to the world?  Are my memories lesser for lack of olfactory reminders? Does the diminution of my fifth sense altogether diminish my ability to engage with the sensory realm?

Or are the books the problem? Has my life of reading distanced me, the incessantly multiplying worlds of words turning the actual into just another iteration? Does the side-by-side existence within my head of the characters I’ve read about and the characters I know keep them all a step away? Have the pungent smells of the literary created my lack?

When I move through the world alone, I see, hear, feel, taste. If I don’t smell, I don’t know it.

But if I read alone, I know it.

Image Credit: Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood.

is a writer, editor, and literacy consultant who lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.


  1. Oh wow. I didn’t know this had a name. This is the way I am. The stuff about learning smells from books hit me like a ton of bricks. So cool.

  2. So sorry to hear about your anosmia!

    Have you tried Acupuncture? Generally speaking, loss of a sense of smell is viewed as a Lung/Heart obstruction, whereas a loss of a sense of taste is often a Spleen/Heart obstruction.

    Acupuncture can help improve, if not entirely resolve, many of these disorders, including the following:

    Anosmia is the complete loss of one’s ability to smell
    Hyposmia is a partial loss of one’s ability to smell
    Ageusia is the complete loss of one’s ability to taste
    Hypogeusia is the partial loss of one’s ability to taste
    Parosmia is a condition were one’s sense of smell is distorted or where one smells certain odors that are not present, i.e. Phantom odors
    Dysgeusia is a condition were one’s tastes abnormal phantom tastes

    Thanks for the article–was a great piece!

  3. I’m a congenital anosmic, too. When I was young, I thought that everyone was psychic except for me. How else could mom know that I had garlic-y food for dinner at a friend’s house?

    A small correction for JK up there, anosmia isn’t a “complete loss of a sense of smell”, it’s a “complete lack of a sense of smell.”

  4. I, too, am a congenital anosmic. For the longest time as a child, I thought I had to “learn” how to smell. I was very upset that I was so far behind my peers in that respect!

    And I have to say that while I enjoyed this article as a whole, your description of what taste is like for you is absolutely spot-on (at least for me). Thank you for sharing this with us!

  5. You may lack a sense of smell, Rebecca, but you have a wonderful way with words. Thank you for this insight into your anosmic world.

  6. This was me up until the end of April. For my entire life I could only smell very strong things, or chemical things up very close to my nose but never the nuances my friends claimed or subtle scents upon entering a room etc. Then in an entertaining (not really) turn of events I discovered I had a sinus infection that lasted an entire year and went to an ENT who did a whole mess of surgery on my sinuses and Lo and Behold I CAN NOW SMELL. It’s kinda nauseating… the first thing I smelled was “parking lot of the grocery store” and I almost threw up. Not being hit all at once with it, but standing there in the stink for the time it took to put the groceries in the car. My husband said “this is just what outside smells like” but the combination of the grease from the McDonalds, the hot asphalt, the exhaust, the Chinese food place next to the Italian place which is next to the dry cleaners… it was just all too too too much for my brain and I wanted to lie down for a while after. It’s gotten better but it was very overwhelming for a while.

  7. Thank you for this! I acquired Anosmia after a head injury and after two years have finally started to come to accept the fact. The one thing that has helped me most is finding other anosmiacs out there, hearing their stories, frustrations and successes. Thank you Rebecca, for a beautifully written experience.

  8. As a fellow congenital anosmic, thank you for this. I appreciate your way of putting some of my feelings and thoughts into words.

  9. For someone who claims a ‘sense of distance’, ‘an unreality of the real’ – you hit the heart of human sensation and perception with such a startling lucidity. Your write up is like that unsettling beauty that can characterize an insight into the ‘other side’.

  10. What a beautiful – and sad – piece. The Monell Center in Philadelphia explores the science of the primal senses of taste and smell to benefit human health and well-being. There is so much we still do not know about the sense of smell. We want to bring together the worldwide community of anosmics to share information as it develops. Please check out our website, follow us on FB (MonellCenter) and Twitter (@MonellSc) and pass the word. We hope to begin a new project on olfactory receptor stem cells soon. Stay tuned!

  11. Dear Becca,

    Finally I see the full tilt of your written powers, knowing you to be a dedicated mother, wife, editor, teacher, mentor, appreciator of genius, sister, daughter.

    Some of us are “super tasters” hence, “super smellers” LOL. Sam and I being
    2 of them, as chefs. No one can be everything. You have your surfeit of gifts, my dear.

    It is like being fluent in a language. It’s foreign to many, but makes sense to those who speak it well. Like art. It’s mysterious and impossible to comprehend to those who are not fluent in its language. Like sex, in that it ‘s either transformational or a let down (or something in between but always compared to something in our past!) Like motherhood, in which we mourn for the vaginal birth we weren’t able to have, or are ecstatic we gave birth, however technological, to a healthy baby, well loved. I’ve had a margarita, so that’s all I can say for now. Your rock and you probably think too much, big brainiac that you are LOL. Delight in your children and your marriage to someone who gets you and your kids, makes delicious food, and besides, you have created a really cool work life, albeit demanding, that encompasses your writing talent, mothering, wife-ness, teaching ability (including the kids at the edges) and the other thing you do that I can’t remember at the moment (due to margarita LOL)
    Relax! Keep on! Enjoy! Thank you! xo

  12. OOPS! A few margarita inspired mistakes, notably You Rock! not “your rock!”
    Leave it lay where Jesus flang it, as my mom’s Texas pal used to say xoxo

  13. you write beautifully, your description so describes much of my own, except that i got this way by having been hit by a car. . i often feel removed from the world, not of the world, sometimes the world smells so horrible i just wish i could leave this horrible smelling place, and when i say horrible i mean unbearable. and when i say this place, i mean this life.
    sometimes i am okay more or less. and other times not.
    and guess the funniest part of this joke: i am/was a food writer!
    the descriptions one of the other commenters made of the various ways to be impaired is very interesting and useful.
    i’m trying to get better, but another commenter said: its a huge help to be in touch with others out there suffering similarly, and seeing your posting, as well as those commenting on it, is exactly that.
    there is something about not smelling your surroundings that is very isolating emotionally. i remember how joyous i felt at the smells of life, and i long, as well as work hard at, returning to that state of tasting, smelling, enjoying life.
    thank you for posting so poetically,


  14. Such a beautifully written piece. What you may have lacked in the sense of smell, you have definitely made up in words.

  15. I lost my smell as consequence of sinus problems. Sometimes I dream about a smell and I turn my head in my dream.

    For me, it is like loosing a part of the world, like sitting a little bit aside of all.

    When my daughter wants me to smell a parfume she likes, forgetting that I can’t, I feel excluded and saddens me not being able to share.

  16. What you’re experiencing is called consciousness. Feeling disconnected from reality and others is normal. Thats why rare connections are special. Yes, not being able to smell may exaggerate that feeling. There is an absurdity to our existence, and yes, it does seem like no one else seems to notice. Yet, if others did not feels the same way, we wouldn’t have the volumes and volumes of philosophy on the subject, movies like The Matrix, or even children’s songs like Row Your Boat. Like they said in hitchhiker’s guide, “That’s perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the universe gets that.”

  17. Thank you for a beautiful article. My daughter has congenital anosmia and this article helps me understand her a little better. It took years and years before we figured it out. When she was about 8 I put some vinegar in a cup and held it to her nose to see if she really couldn’t smell or just didnt have the right vocabulary for the things she smelled. When she showed no response whatsoever when the rest of us would cringe and it would hurt , I knew she really couldn’t smell. I try to be sensitive to it and not talk about smell memories but she is also very matter of fact because she’s never had it. She is a very boring eater because I don’t think she can taste all the subtleties that are tied to smells. I worry about her living alone. She’s going into high school this year and I will have to talk to her chemistry teacher because smell is one of the ways chemicals are identified. Anyway. ,…. Thank you for putting beautiful words to this. I will share this article with her today as she is a big reader too!

  18. wonderful writing and description. I lost much of my taste and smell after a cold last year. It was actually a short cold with a lot of congestion for a couple days. That’s it. I have some tongue based taste and a little smell but as the writer described, muted. I also have MS but no one I have discussed this with thinks it has to do with MS but then who knows for sure? I don’t think I had a sinus infection, but maybe I should look into it. I have a good appetite which is unfortunate because I hardly desire food anymore. I eat when I am hungry or if something looks so good I have to have it. I don’t cook much too my husband’s dismay, but I wasn’t doing too much of that anyway. I had lost weight on a lower carb lifestye over the past few years and lost more but can’t remember if that happened before or after the cold. Hardly any of my clothes fit and some were my favorites and cannot be taken in.

  19. I love this piece, so far it is my favorite. I’ve been anosmic for a year since a head injury and it has been tough. I found out the term from my doctor. People look at me like I’m crazy when I say I can’t smell…

    I have always felt distant from the world and felt out of body experiences though. I think you might be interested in Jungian psychology and his writings on archetypes. Linked to Myers Briggs typology the INJ type takes sensory experience as a sort of beautiful burden, often to be ignored at times but unconsciously depending on it greatly. I fit that description myself, and though I was distant from the world before I feel my loss of smell has brought me to the point o distance that I can almost detach myself from anything, an almost numbing effect. It seems that not all people, even others with anosmia, seem to understand that feeling.

  20. Thanks Becca for this post. We are a rare group, and not obvious to each other, so I have actually never talked to anyone else personally who had never experienced a sense of smell. To me smell is an intellectual concept–I know it is out there, when I remember to think about it. I realize that it can be devastating to people who have it and then lose it but I especially want to reassure Dawn…your daughter will be fine. I’m 72, have, and have had, a great life– in my high school chemistry class I was the designated note taker, I got two children through diapers (with a lot of checking), and it would never have occurred to me that living alone would be a problem. And yes, we should all have working smoke alarms and such…but so should everyone else.

  21. Oops. I also wanted to thank Liz and wish her luck. It sounds like you are making progress in working it out. I wish there was some way to keep us posted on how it is going. All the best!

  22. as a 44 year old congenital anosmic myself… thank you for writing this. I couldn’t have put it more eloquently if I had tried. Now when people ask me what it;s like to be me… I’m going to forward them here !!

  23. I too am a congenital anosmic. Great article beautifully written. There is a vast gulf between the experiences of acquired anosmics and congenital anosmics. I feel sorry for the acquired folks because they really do know what they’ve lost and the huge gap that has appeared in the sensory environment. For us CA folks though, there is really no big emotional price, just the kind of introspection so well written about in this article.

  24. Wow- This is me, as well. I have never been able to smell either. I will get a headache after being in the perfume department at a store and I think it is because I am inhaling the smells into my mouth.

    I too worried about my kids when in diapers and many times had to do the “finger” test. I do not wear perfume because i do not know what it will smell like on me. I am very conscious of my other senses and touch lets me know when kids are dirty or sweaty feeling, etc. I always have gotten the gross jobs around the house like changing cat litter, cleaning up dog poop, vomit, etc.
    since I cannot smell too. Yucky.

    This is a major disability in our lives and although I am sorry for your asnomnia, I am glad I am not alone.

  25. Wow… So utterly, incredibly, fantastically spot on! I especially liked the last part, about not being fully connected, good at crisis, etc., because I function in exactly the same way, but have never made that connection.

    There is one difference though. Unlike you I have never been able to smell anything. Nothing. Not ever.

    I can taste food, and like food! But I have absolutely no idea what “smell” is. I follow my wife into a perfume store, and stand there looking at bottles with colored water, people sniffing in the bottles, but to me the air is same as anywhere else. If you made a blind test on me it could just as well have been … water, or something that really stinks. I don’t know the difference. Like you, I read about it in books, and it is just as real as telepathy, or magic.

  26. I am freaking out right now. This article helped me realized that I too am some sort of anosmiac / hyposmiac. I burnt toast until it was jet black to see if I could smell it and from the other room, I could only barely detect it. When i looked into the room smoke was BILLOWING out of the toaster. I feel that this is abnormal but I would like responses to confirm this for me. This is so crazy!

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