Language and smell: traces of synesthesia in premodern learning

Raf Van Rooy
PhD fellow of the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO)
University of Leuven

It is well known that, in present-day English, the verb ‘smell’ can obtain a negative connotation when used intransitively; the adjective derived from it, ‘smelly’, is even lexically restricted to the meaning ‘having a bad smell’. By contrast, speakers of English tend to allot more positive interpretations to the sense adjective ‘tasty’ (cf. Krifka 2010). That is to say: everybody with a healthy appetite would prefer ‘tasty’ to ‘smelly’ food. Another example, from a rather unexpected corner, is the association between stench and syntax errors in computer terminology. It appears that the terms CodeSmell (alternative terms: CodeStench and CodePerfume) and LanguageSmell refer to the use of erroneous codes in computer programming (see ‘If it smells, it’s bad’, appears to be the maxim of olfactory imagery in English. Things seem to have been quite different in some premodern Latin and Italian texts I encountered during my research on the history of the ‘dialect’ concept. In these writings, the image of ‘smell’, always expressed by means of the Proto-Indo-European root *od- (cf. ancient Greek ὀσμή), seems to be usually tied up with more positive features, such as antiquity, purity, and naturalness, especially with reference to linguistic contexts. Since no studies on this topic are known to me, I would like to briefly explore some of these passages in the present contribution, so as to shed a little more light on this peculiar aspect of premodern language attitudes.

The Roman orators Cicero (106–43 BC) and Quintilian (ca. AD 35–ca. 100) offer us an interesting starting point. Driven by their concern for the use of a correct Latin on public occasions, they occasionally resort to the image of smell in order to picture the characteristics of ‘good’ language in general and appealing orations in particular. For example, to the question whether Demetrius of Phalerum spoke (good) Attic, Cicero replied: “I think that Athens herself can be scented through his orations” (Brutus 82.285: “Mihi quidem ex illius orationibus redolere ipsae Athenae uidentur”).1 In the very same work (21.82), he describes Servius Galba’s speeches as “smelling of antiquity” (“orationes […] redolentes […] antiquitatem”). Although the context seems to be rather negative here – he describes the ‘dryness’ of Galba’s rhetorical products – archaism is implicitly recognized as a positive feature, which Cicero likewise perceives in other great orators of the past such as Cato the Elder. In his De oratore, he also relies on the verb olere to express puristic prescriptions; this time, however, the image cautions against all too excessive foreign particularities in speech.2 Quintilian, for his part, tries to warn his readers about the risk of being accused of using regionalisms, a criticism to which even the famous historian Livy fell victim (there was allegedly some Patauinitas in him). For this reason, he advises that “all words and accent should smell like a native of this city” (8.1.3: “et uerba omnia et uox huius alumnum urbis oleant, ut oratio Romana plane uideatur, non ciuitate donata”), thus implementing the ‘smell’ image in a normative-puristic context (cf. Adams 2007: 195).3

Jumping to the later Middle Ages, I came across similar usages of the olfactory image linked to linguistic features. The Welsh chronicler Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis; ca. 1146–ca. 1223), for example, connects it with purity and antiquity, as Cicero and Quintilian had done before him. In his Description of Wales (Descriptio Cambriae) 1.6 (“On the delightfulness and fertility of Wales”; ed. Dimock 1868: 177), Gerald maps out the regional varieties of the southern part of modern Great Britain. Using the same Latin term as Cicero (redolere), he contends that southern English is purer (“magis […] incomposita”) than its northern counterpart (which is ‘corrupted’ by Danish and Norwegian influences). He asserts that the former “smells by far more of antiquity” (“uetustatem longe plus redolens”) and “preserves the property of the original tongue and the ancient way of speaking to a greater extent” (“originalis linguae proprietatem, et antiquum loquendi modum magis obseruat”).4

At the end of the medieval era, the Italian poet and scholar Dante Alighieri (ca. 1265–1321), already on the verge of the Renaissance, elaborates upon the synesthetic imagery in his famous unfinished treatise On vernacular eloquence (De uulgari eloquentia; written ca. 1305), by introducing a panther into the discussion (see 1.16.1 and 1.16.4-5; cf. also Van der Horst 2008: 62-64). The exotic animal and the odor-guided hunt for it are employed to visualize his concept of the uulgare illustre (on which already much research has been conducted; see, e.g., Holtus 1989). After having ‘hunted’ in every Italian city and investigated the variety (or varieties) spoken in each of them, Dante feels compelled to admit that he has not been able to catch the panther that is the uulgare illustre. The metaphorical animal, even though “it emits its scent everywhere”, “doesn’t appear anywhere” (1.16.1: “pantheram […] redolentem ubique et necubi apparentem”). A few paragraphs below, the odor imagery reappears, although a reference to the panther is lacking. There, Dante contends that a common form of speech necessarily outshines locally restricted varieties; for all that is common to a whole people is better than everything that is particular and diversified. This is where smell comes in again; whereas the uulgare illustre “diffuses its odor in every city”, it “has its bed in none” (1.16.4: “[…] in qualibet redolet ciuitate nec cubat in ulla”). However, the scent can be stronger in some areas than in others (1.16.5: “Potest tamen magis in una quam in alia redolere, […]”). Thus, largely relying on synesthetic imagery (in combination with the hunting metaphor), the Florentine poet is trying to define his linguistic ideal (an “illustre, cardinale, aulicum et curiale uulgare”; 1.16.6) as well as stressing its sheer unattainability.

I conclude this exploratory contribution by briefly touching upon two passages from the first half of the 16th century. The first is to be found in Baldassare Castiglione’s (1478–1529) Il Cortegiano (the second redaction of 1528 in Cordié 1960: 60), in which the Greek dialectal situation is discussed (see Trovato 1984: 217). Here, a new element shows up; the olfactory figure is related to ‘naturalness’ of speech. Each non-Attic Greek writer chose to remain recognizable both “in his way of writing” as well as “at the ‘odor’ and peculiarity of his natural speech”, in spite of the alleged superior position of the Athenian tongue.5 The Picard philosopher and theologian Charles de Bovelles (Carolus Bouillus; 1479–1566), in his turn, falls back on the ‘odor’ image to discuss etymological links between contemporary tongues on the one hand and Latin and Greek on the other (“Quia autem immensum nobis exurgeret uolumen si recensendae istic forent hae uoces, cuiusuis linguae, quae uel Latinam redolent originem uel Graecam”), when discussing the vast and unregulated variety of vernacular speech in his 1533 Liber de differentia (p. 13). The quality of antiquity is – again, but this time more implicitly – linked up with scent.

By means of this necessarily incomplete survey, I hope to have indicated that the ‘synesthetic approach’ of the authors discussed above may be an interesting perspective to tackle diverging evaluative attitudes toward language in premodern learning. Unlike the semantics of the English word ‘smell’ and ‘smelly’, the olfactory image is principally – but not exclusively – employed in more positive contexts (at least in Latin and Italian). It refers to varying features such as purity (often connected with normative stances; cf. Cicero, Quintilian, Gerald, and Dante), antiquity (Cicero, Gerald), and naturalness (Castiglione). Bovelles’ reliance on the ‘odor’ metaphor in sketching etymological affiliations may be seen as an extension of the ‘antiquity’ feature. The majority of these authors were very influential throughout premodern history, so that it is not inconceivable that other scholars might have been inspired by them. Further research could help in mapping out to what extent this image was taken up in linguistic contexts (and to what extent the lexeme od-/ol- was still primarily connected with the sense of smell; cf. note 4 below).


1 I have made Latin spelling uniform. Unless mentioned otherwise, the Latin passages are quoted from Brepolis’ Library of Latin Texts.

2 3.44: “Quare cum sit quaedam certa uox Romani generis urbisque propria, in qua nihil offendi, nihil displicere, nihil animaduerti possit, nihil sonare aut olere peregrinum, hanc sequamur, neque solum rusticam asperitatem, sed etiam peregrinam insolentiam fugere discamus.”

3 Interestingly enough, this passage has been invoked by a so-called ‘birther’ to doubt Barack Obama’s pure ‘natural American citizenship’ and his eligibility for the office of US president (for the precise context within which this passage appears, see the URL The ‘birther’ in question is a representative of a more rational movement among ‘birthers’, in that he tries to offer objective counterarguments against the legitimacy of Obama’s position as US president.

4 It may, of course, be questioned to what extent the smell element in redolere was still present in the conceptualization of later authors such as Gerald. However, the ensemble of examples seems to indicate that most of them were conscious of the olfactory aspect of this verb (cf. its prominence in Dante’s imagery).

5 “[…] benché la ateniese fosse elegante, pura e facunda più che l’altre, i boni scrittori che non erano di nazion ateniesi non la affettavano tanto che, nel modo dello scrivere e quasi all’odore e proprietà del suo naturale parlare, non fossero conosciuti.”


Adams, James Noel. 2007. The Regional Diversification of Latin 200 BC – AD 600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bovelles, Charles de. 1533. Caroli Bouilli Samarobrini liber de differentia uulgarium linguarum, et Gallici sermonis uarietate. Quae uoces apud Gallos sint factitiae et arbitrariae, uel barbariae: quae item ab origine Latina manarint. De hallucinatione Gallicanorum nominum. Parisiis: ex officina Roberti Stephani.

Brepolis’ Library of Latin Texts (

Castiglione, Baldassare, Giovanni Della Casa, and Benvenuto Cellini. 1960. Opere di Baldassare Castiglione, Giovanni Della Casa, Benvenuto Cellini. Edited by Carlo Cordié. La letteratura italiana. Storia e testi 27. Milano-Napoli: Ricardo Ricciardi.

Dimock, James F., ed. 1868. Giraldi Cambrensis Opera. Vol. 6 [Giraldi Cambrensis Itinerarium Kambriae, et Descriptio Kambriae]. London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer.

Holtus, Günter. 1989. “Das ‘vulgare illustre’ als Modell einer italienischen Kunstsprache. Standard, Substandard und Varietät in Dante Alighieris Traktat ‘De vulgari eloquentia’ (1305).” In Sprachlicher Substandard II. Standard und Substandard in der Sprachgeschichte und in der Grammatik, edited by Günter Holtus and Edgar Radtke, 1–13. Konzepte der Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft 44. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

Krifka, Manfred. 2010. “A Note on an Asymmetry in the Hedonic Implicatures of Olfactory and Gustatory Terms.” In Between the Regular and the Particular in Speech and Language, edited by Susanne Fuchs, Philip Hoole, Christine Mooshammer, and Marzena Zygis, 235–45. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Trovato, Paolo. 1984. “‘Dialetto’ e sinonimi (’idioma’, ‘proprietà’, ‘lingua’) nella terminologia linguistica quattro- e cinquecentesca. (con un’appendice sulla tradizione a stampa dei trattatelli dialettologici bizantini).” Rivista di letteratura italiana 2: 205–36.

Van der Horst, Joop. 2008. Het einde van de standaardtaal. Een wisseling van Europese taalcultuur. Amsterdam: J. M. Meulenhoff.

How to cite this post

Van Rooy, Raf. 2014. Language and smell: traces of synesthesia in premodern learning. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in Europe, History, Linguistics, Semantics
5 comments on “Language and smell: traces of synesthesia in premodern learning
  1. nickriemer says:

    Good post, James. What’s with the new logo?!

  2. James McElvenny says:

    Perhaps relevant to this discussion is the Modern English loanword redolent, an adjective that would seem to retain much of the semantics of its Latin etymon redolere as you present it in your post. The primary sense of redolent (with a PP complement headed by with or of) is to be suggestive of something or imbued with a particular quality or feeling. The olfactory sense of the word has for most English speakers probably retreated into etymology.

    The German term Stallgeruch would seem to represent a similar union of identity and odour, but it’s probably a little more colloquial and mocking than the uses of redolere and its derivatives.

  3. jmaat says:

    Very interesting blog. I was however wondering if the well-known saying ‘pecunia non olet’ does not suggest that the Romans also felt that smelly things are to be avoided rather than praised for purity and antiquity. Perhaps a vast corpus of texts, searched by a well-instructed machine, could help acquiring the data you need for reliable conclusions of this sort.

  4. rafvanrooy says:

    First of all, thanks for the useful and interesting additions, James and dr. Maat. Of course, I was not aiming at sketching all the nuances of the olfactory image in Latin and Italian. I just wanted to point out that the lexeme od-/ol- is often associated with ‘positive’ language-related features. In semantic fields other than language, different connotations may indeed be possible (and probably are, as with the anecdote behind the pecunia non olet saying). I agree that systematic corpus research could offer more conclusive evidence both for the smell image as a whole and for its appearance in language-related contexts in particular. Obviously, the blog format did not allow such a systematic treatment; my conclusions are therefore tentative, at most.

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