The Subtle Art of Naming the Smells That Shape You

On a nose-first investigation into the world.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash


Summer smells like fresh rain on hot asphalt. It smells like staying out twenty minutes past curfew, of storms moving in, of running home under newspapers, giggling and laughing and telling the boy next to me to run faster, we’re getting wet!

It smells like my first car, of driving too fast with the windows down, of conflating the feeling of artificial speed with my sense of immortality, of invincibility, knowing that I would never grow tired and old. Petrichor smells like home, where the winters are mild and the summer are scorching, and the humidity is so high that walking out of an air-conditioned building feels like walking right into a brick wall.

Green leaf volatiles

Such a violent name for a gentle summer scent — but the summer I turned sixteen smells like sharing secrets with my friends, lying on the lawn trying to tan our pale forearms, sun baking the piles of cut grass next to us. We’d learned in biology that year that when a blade of grass is cut, it shouts into the world that it’s been hurt, that it’s been damaged. It tells all the blades of grass next to it to start pumping out toxic defense compounds to defend themselves.

The lawnmower mows them down regardless, but the scent still lingers, permeating my skin and leaving smears of green on my jean shorts.

This year smells like the tears my friend wept about the boy who hurt her, who went on to hurt the other girls in my friend circle who didn’t heed her warning. The rest of us grew tough in time, turning bristling exteriors to his advances. We’re no better than the grass.

Maillard reactions

This year I learned to bake, learned to take disparate ingredients and turn them, like magic, into something greater than the sum of the individual parts. This summer smells like burnt sugar and rising bread, of thick chocolate mousse infused with dark rum, of blueberries caramelizing on the pan to be put into a tart.

It smells the knowledge that when everything else is going wrong, when everything else in my life is out of my control and rapidly spiraling into a meltdown, I can still make a perfect loaf of bread simply by using careful measurements and strict timing.


This year I dedicate myself, body and soul, to the swimming pool. I have tan lines marking the straps of my competition swimsuit, and my muscles move my body faster than I’ve ever experienced.

Eight times a week, sometimes twice a day, this is the year I swim so much it feels more like I’m fitting in my life around the pool. I leave, water dripping down my hair to soak the back of my t-shirt to ruin it.

There’s something about the smell of my sweat combining with the chlorine of the pool, something about the way it clings to my skin even when I’ve showered, that makes it hard to forget swimming.

The Proust effect

There’s a power in naming things, in placing a word to an experience, and there’s nothing stronger than a smell to shape a memory. And so I learned one more name, to better understand why it is that a smell — a single whiff of a cut blade of grass, a wind that reeks of chlorine, the combination of water and flour, heat rising from a wet road — can evoke such powerful memories.

Every scent is stamped into your brain, caught between its folds, pinpointing coordinates in space and time where that memory was formed. And I think it’s one of the loveliest things in the world that with the right word, we can communicate the slightest nuance of our shared experience. There is a subtle art to defining an experience so sharply you can find its name, but when you do, there is nothing more rewarding.

Biology MSc. Psychology nerd. She/her. Get my FREE 5-day Medium Starter Kit to make money writing about what you love:

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