• AChemS Education Corner

What Is In A Name?

Contributor: Thomas Hummel, Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden, Germany

Target audience: Ages 6 and older.

Goal(s): To learn that odors are typically difficult to name.

  • 2 or more different odor sources (possibly, fruits or other food which have smells)
  • 2 or more opaque jars
  • With the participants not watching, place each single odor source in a single jar.
  • Blindfold the participants, or ask them to keep their eyes closed;
  • Put the jar about an inch/two centimeters below their nose;
  • Next, ask them to name the odor they smelled. They will like name something that may not be what they smelled, even if the odor is very familiar.
  • Ask them to describe the odor and the associations they can find with it. Likely, they will be able to mention when or where they smelled this odor, but still have a hard time to label it.
  • If they were not able to correctly name the odor, give them 4 options to choose from. For instance, if the odor comes from an orange, name four fruits (e.g., orange, strawberry, black-berry, pineapple) and ask the participant to select the correct one among those.
  • Finally, allow the participant to look and reveal the contents of the jar and see how fast the odor will be named.
Take-home message: We usually have a hard time naming odors, especially when we are not given any clues. Verbal clues help us to correctly name the odors but seeing the source of the odor makes us the fastest.

If you want to read up more on this topic try this scientific paper:
Sulmont-Rosse, C., Issanchou, S., & Köster, E. P. (2005). Odor naming methodology: correct identification with multiple-choice versus repeatable identification in a free task. Chemical senses, 30(1), 23-27.