Susie Dent

Susie Dent

… on the wonderful aroma of autumn

This month our columnist challenges us to invent a word which describes the unmistakable smell of autumn.

It always perplexes me that there is no word for the scent of autumn.
The distinctive aroma that greets our nostrils as the days begin to wane, marking the threshold between two seasons.

It’s a beautiful smell, but also, given that scents can have an emotional quality, a slightly melancholy, wistful one. Each year I find myself stopping in my tracks the first time I notice it, face turned to the air, breathing deeply and silently acknowledging the rite of passage.

This year was no different, and the scent is thankfully still with us, along with many others that belong exclusively to autumn.


There is a name for summer rain

And yet we have no name for the autumnal aroma, unlike the unmistakable smell of rain in summer, which is known as ‘petrichor’ – a word that is eagerly swapped on social media whenever rain hits scorched earth after a long spell of hot and dry weather. It also happens to have an exquisite etymology.

When two scientists identified the source of this rainy scent in the 1960s – a heady compound known as geosmin – they looked to legend to name it. Petri is from the Greek for ‘stone’, while ichor is the ethereal essence that, in classical mythology, was believed to flow like blood through the veins of the gods.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find a similarly enchanting word for the scent of autumn? The damp, musty smell of leaves beneath the feet, of cedar, maple, apples, and forest mushrooms?

The forgotten words to describe smells

I for one would be the first to splash out on any perfume that managed to bottle this heady mix. After all, the vocabulary of perfumery is highly sophisticated.

Scent-makers talk of ‘base notes’, of ‘accord’, and ‘tonality’. Their exotic ingredient cupboard may feature ‘oud’, ‘chypre’, ‘and ‘ambrée’. A scent can even be described as ‘gourmand’ – French for a lover of food – if it is ‘good enough to eat’.

Admittedly, when it comes to highly distinctive smells, English doesn’t do too badly, although it has to be said that some aren’t exactly tempting.

‘Mundungus’, for example, from the 17th century, means ‘foul- smelling tobacco’ and surely belongs in the world of Harry Potter, while (look away now if you’re squeamish), the thankfully rare ‘nidorosity’ is defined in one dictionary as belching ‘with the smell of undigested meat’.

Other forgotten gems, depending on your point of view, include ‘alliaceous’, smelling like garlic or onions, and ‘hircine’, having a distinctly goaty smell (careful with this one, however, for it can also mean ‘lusty’). I remember a slight disappointment when I learned that the 18th-century ‘stinkibus’ describes cheap alcohol and not someone who reeks of it.

These are offset though by rare beauties, some of which have been imaginatively crafted by recent voices.

The author John Koenig has invented the glorious word ‘vellichor’ for both the smell and the aura of old bookshops.

Let’s create a new word

Other words are embedded in the culture of their speakers. I remember reading of the Jahai, a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers in the mountain rainforests of Malaysia, whose lexicon for different smells is vast. It includes ‘itpit’, used for ripe fruit, and ‘cnes’, the smell of droppings in bat caves. Who knew?

With such riches already out there, it is surely high time that we found a word for autumn’s perfume – one that promises pumpkins, bonfires, pine resin, blackberries, fireside snuggles, and woodland walks. It’s an intoxicating concoction, and surely deserves a name as magical as ‘petrichor’. And, as the pandemic sadly proved, our ability to smell is a precious commodity.

Reader, I would love you to succeed where I have failed. Autumn is a season to treasure: we owe it its own fragrance. May the challenge begin.

Susie Dent

Written by Susie Dent