A Shiver of Vellichor: On the Satisfaction of Finding New Words
Updated: Aug 18, 2020
Image courtesy of ©National Trust / James Dobson. Olfactory detective and heritage scientist Dr Cecilia Bembibre of UCL ISH conducting research on the smell of antique books.
By Suzy Nightingale
Video editor, public speaker, and narrator John Koenig coined the term ‘vellichor’ to describe the intense yearning we may feel from the smell of old bookstores, and he defines it as follows:
n. the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as
they were on the day they were captured.
Hailing from his suitably evocatively named website, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows; although ‘vellichor’ has yet to appear in any official dictionary, Simon & Schuster have announced they are to publish the website of wistful terms in book form. And those of us obsessed with the satisfaction of finally putting words to hitherto rather rudderless emotions shall rejoice. Just as grasping for slippery scent descriptions can be anchored by the very words in this Odorbet project. For so long, the majority of words connected with smell have been unrelentingly pejorative if specific, or unhelpfully poetic if artistically employed. Google the word ‘smell’ itself and you’ll see stock photos of people pinching their noses, their well-lit faces twisting in high-res disgust. Perfumers use technical terms, or words intensely personal to them. We fragrance writers are left to be stultifyingly literal (like describing a painting by listing the colours); or poaching textures, sounds, taste sensations, colours and hoping for the best. That perfume is ‘velvety’, ‘symphonic’, ‘juicy’ or ‘golden’. But sometimes that just won’t do, it’s not enough. And that’s deeply upsetting, because olfactory memories left adrift are sad, pale things that flap and flounder, their wistfulness quite painful – one of those moments you wake in a cold sweat, desperate to remember a dream but unable to say where you were, who you were with or what happened. Unnamed, unspoken, the colour drains, the dream withers and dies. Finding just the descriptor can anchor that reverie, scratch that itch, let the vellichor live.
Vellichor was named to echo the more widely known, yet still sadly under-appreciated, smell description of ‘petrichor’ - a word first noted in the journal Nature in 1964, that only the Oxford English Dictionary has yet seen fit to include, which describes the olfactory phenomenon of “A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain
after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions.” (OED). Submitted as a New Word Suggestion to Collins Dictionary in 2016, vellichor currently languishes as ‘Approval Status: Pending Investigation’; though Collins note that Koenig’s word “...was picked up by Twitter subscribers in August 2013. John Koenig wrote of his creation that it meant: "the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time." Example:
“There’s a bookshop on the corner and just walking past fills me with a sense of vellichor.”’
In fact, the smell of bookshops has been much explored, and the unique smell was traced in a scientific paper, published in 2009. Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books revealed that as the various components of a book - glue, paper, ink, sometimes leather - begin to break down, they release volatile compounds. So scientifically, Vellichor can be said to describe Lignin, which is closely related to vanillin, and present in all wood-based paper.
Matija Strlic, the lead scientist in the study, described the smell of an old book as ‘A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents.’ Though Koenig’s word represents far more than merely the chemical structure, describing our
many-layered emotions in the act of smelling these various notes. Pinning the pining helps, sometimes.
In 2014, artist, photographer musician and, now, perfumer Paul Schütze immersed visitors to his London exhibition in exactly this emotion roused by the hushed scent of quietly decaying books. Named ‘Silent Surface’, a collection of photographs comprising books on fire and with missing words was displayed within the surroundings of an antiquarian bookshop. A central piece of a blackened book resting atop a plinth wafted an other-worldly aroma he’d
sprayed the pages with and, under the lights the fragrance diffused to fill the space. The piece was called IN LIBRO DE TENERIS, and the majority of visitors asked if they could buy this inky, woody, book-ish scent (they couldn’t, it had been a one-off aroma created to enhance the experience of the show) but from that moment, his fragrant fate was sealed. Though sadly, I must report that vellichor-like scent was created with ingredients that would never be granted a skin safety certificate under IFRA regulations, so book-sniffers (and we are legion) must get our hits by visiting actual antiquarian bookstores. Often.
Be warned: the elusive vellichor is an addictive shiver of a smell. It will haunt you, deliciously.
Perhaps you might like to use the word thusly:
The base notes suddenly wrapped her in vellichor: of memories that weren’t hers, but which she had lived; of all the shadows of books left unwritten, words left unsaid...