Lexical-olfactory synesthesia

This is a type of synesthesia where words (heard, spoken, read or simply thought about) trigger a concurrent of smell. Each word, or family of words, has its own specific aroma, and the smells are consistently perceived. Some people have smell concurrents for a large number of words, although others only have them for a limited amount.

Lexical-olfactory synesthesia appears to be much less common than its taste equivalent, lexical-gustatory synesthesia. Sean Day's study of prevalence suggests that the latter is almost five times as common (2.89% of the synesthetes questioned reported having word-taste perceptions as compared to only 0.61% for word-smell). People who have lexical-olfactory synesthesia also tend to have lexical-gustatory, i.e. the two types coexist. Sometimes the synesthete is not even sure whether the perception triggered by the words is actually a taste or a smell, this being a confusion that often affects synesthetes with both taste and smell-related types. However, few accounts or descriptive studies can be found on lexical-olfactory synesthesia.

If the smell sensations are in response to letters rather than whole words, this would be a case of a very uncommon type of synesthesia called grapheme-smell synesthesia


Here are some descriptions written by people with this type of synesthesia:

"Not every word has a smell for me, it really depends.. sometimes on how I'm feeling too, but that doesn't affect it as much.

What I call middle words like (it, then, like, has, etc) don't have smells, but I smell words with definitions or concepts like: Philia (floral), Eros (warm aromatic like cinnamon), philautia (those lipglosses that smell kind of like coffee), mandala (floral, and sand), etc. (...)

I can taste them as well, it really depends on the words though. Some have more scent than taste, and vice versa, but most have taste for me since that's my strongest type."

(Source: This comment on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)

This description is written by someone who has just realised that words have smells, although their description is so detailed and precise that it seems they genuinely do have lexical-olfactory synesthesia:

"I'm noticing that when I repeat a word, I start smelling food items. I only smell them, I cannot taste words. Here are some examples: xylophone smells like BBQ Ribs, fortunate smells like cheese, compare smells like wine, wolverine smells like lumber, surrender smells like steamed veggies, synesthesia smells like boiled potatoes (no toppings), knowledge smells like cherries and example(s) smells like slightly old fish."

(Source: This post on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)

They say that they hadn’t noticed it any earlier in life, so it would have to be established whether they continue receiving these impressions, how long they lasted and if they perceive them more frequently now that they have become aware of them. However, in general, the types of synesthesia with an olfactory concurrent have the peculiarity that they tend to “come and go” rather than being constantly present, even though they are perfectly consistent with regard to their inducer and concurrent. This might be one of the reasons why so few people mention that they have this type and why it might be difficult for them to describe.

Related synesthesia types: 

Lexical-gustatory synesthesia (word-taste)

Auditory-olfactory synesthesia (sound/music-smell)

Grapheme-smell synesthesia (letters/numbers-smell)

This page last updated: 07 July 2022

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