Listen! Do you smell that? It's language. • 12 August 2007 • The SnowBlog

Listen! Do you smell that? It's language.

A word about smell and then linguistics. Anna mentioned this to me recently: you buy something, say deodorant, and it has a distinctive smell that you don't think of as your smell - in other words, you now smell like someone else. I'm experiencing this today in a particularly weird way. My new deodorant is obviously made by a company who believe that the nose is gender-blind, because I now smell like my girlfriend from my early twenties. Alternatively it might just be that she's recently started stalking me. Tamsin? I don't owe you money or something, do I? And that leads me on to a discussion about superpowers. Naturally. I can't remember where this originated - online somewhere maybe, or in an article - anyway, I read a thing where you have to choose between the superpowers of flying and invisibility. I remember the conclusion at the end of the piece that you feel you should choose flying but really you want invisibility - the idea being that flight is more mentally healthy but less actually tempting than sneaking around spying on people. But personally I'd prefer flying. I'm not convinced that makes me a more wholesome person, though, than the fans of invisibility. You could easily make a case for flying being anti-social or pathological non-confrontational or some such. The point is, I wouldn't choose invisibility, except maybe in the olfactory realm. I look for non-scented products whenever I can, but my shampoo, hand-soap, deodorant and laundry soap all smell strongly. The smell of laundry soap is particularly interesting/annoying to me. It reminds me of the evolution of the word 'silly', which I was reading about the other day. You'll see why in a moment, if you don't already. Someone at the soap company must have asked themselves what people want from a laundry detergent. 'Clean clothes' they would have answered themselves confidently. Then a doubt crept in: 'But how will people know that their clothes are clean?'. Again the confident response: 'Because they'll smell clean'. And once more the voice of doubt: "But clean doesn't smell of anything. Clean is all about removing the things that smell.' One final idea settled the matter, 'Well then we'll make their clothes positively reek of things that people associate with the idea of cleanness. Flowers, pine and vanilla - all mixed together'. And the makers of hand soap, deodorant and shampoo thought the same thing. Which is why, in olfactory terms, I'm like a flashing neon beacon of clean. As are most of us. (Apart from people who ride on public transport. They don't smell of clean.) And why is that like the evolution of the word 'silly'? Anyone? Bueller? Anyone? Because in Old English 'silly' originally meant 'blessed'. And then, because you couldn't really be favoured by god unless you were an innocent, by 1400 it came to mean 'innocent' instead. An innocent is deserving of compassion and that meaning took over a century later. But those most deserving of compassion are the weak, and by the mid seventeenth century 'silly' meant 'weak'. 'weak' being a term of contempt, 'silly' expanded in modern times to mean 'foolish'. I wonder if it's that sort of process - though greatly speeded up - that can lead a word like 'clean' to go from meaning 'purged of anything extraneous' to 'smells strongly of vanilla'. Incidentally - or perhaps not so incidentally since this is supposed to be a publishers' blog - I got the story of the evolution of the word 'silly' from a popular linguistics book called The Power of Babel. I can heartily recommend it, though not perhaps to members of the Grammar Police. It's full of stories about how one particular dialect happened, accidentally, to be elevated above others and from that point onwards talking any other way was deemed slovenly. Aquitaine, for instance, used to be the language of nobility, until the French capital moved to the North, and then that self-same language was derided as the tongue of peasants. Or another example: 'bad' grammar is often held to imply woolly thinking, low intelligence or a bad education. But most linguists will tell you that everyone talks grammatically... according to their own dialect, though not necessarily yours. Yet Standard English grammar is held up as the dialect of rationality and logic compared to the corrupt slang scruffy or Northern people speak. But then look at the following: I was, you was, he/she was, we were, you were, they were. It's 'wrong', but it's logical. 'was' is singular, 'were' is plural. The reason posh folk don't talk that way is that their dialect solidified just as 'thou' was going out of fashion. They started using 'you' - which had been a plural - to replace the singular 'thou'. And so they dragged along the plural form 'were' to go with it. If it wasn't for the fact posh people and books both say 'you (singular) were', you could make a pretty good case for 'you (singular) was'. So if you have nothing better to do, read The Power of Babel by John McWhorter. I'm learning lots of brand new interesting things from reading it. (The only depressing thing about that is that I've actually read the book before.) And finally, you might like to know that the picture above is not a symbol of clean; it's a very subtly out-of-focus flower from my garden. Click on it if you like your flowers to be in hi-res, close-up detail. And rather fittingly given where we started, because it's a picture it's completely odourless.


The SnowBlog is one of the oldest publishing blogs, started in 2003, and it's been through various content management systems over the years. A 2005 techno-blunder meant we lost the early years, but the archives you're reading now go all the way back to 2005.

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