The Semantics of Perfume Description: How Not To Claim Authorship Of A Phrase

This is embarrassing.

One of the problems with the internet is that people regularly do sloppy work and pass it off as "finished." It used to be that you opened a newspaper or magazine and read a well written, well edited article about something, with the occasional typo, grammatical error, or fact-check error an anomaly, but not anymore. Ever read Salon.com? It's a popular editorial site, very leftist, that blogs about current events. Unfortunately for them, their content is frequently posted before even the most cursory of spell checks or grammatical edits. This results in the publication of ostensibly serious articles that appear to be written by eighth graders. It's very sad.

Some of my readers have made comments recently that ponder the technicalities of perfume writing. Novices often feel intimidated by the prospect of putting their experiences into words for the public to read. It's a bit daunting to say the least. By writing about perfume, your experiences are generalized in ways that may not connect with every reader. It's impossible to get the syntax right all of the time, and semantics are often an issue. Semantics became an issue for me yesterday, as I read a relatively obscure fragrance blog and was abruptly perplexed by what was posted there.

One of the things you have to be careful about in perfume writing is to not be too ambitious about technique. It's tempting to use interesting terms and phrases when describing smells, and equally tempting to cherry-pick the more unusual phrases and pass them off as being your own - to essentially "declare" the phrase as yours. If you do this, chances are you will be gravely mistaken. To help you avoid the embarrassment that might ensue, I've included an excerpt, linked to above, as an example of what not to do.

In it, the blogger writes:

"Fast forward to 2007/2008, when I became interested in fragrances . . . when I began to write reviews I sometimes would say 'the opening' rather than 'this opens with,' and a few years later I noticed that many people were using this same phrasing . . . I did some research and couldn’t find any other use of the word opening in this way before I did, and I mentioned this a couple of times, mostly because I found it amusing. One blogger apparently thinks that I believe myself to be some sort of 'genius' because of this notion, and has implied that I am lying or otherwise incorrect in thinking that I was the first to use the term in this way. I find it quite fascinating that anyone would care, one way or the other. I certainly don’t care, though I’d be curious to know for sure. If I were to imply what he did, I would find some evidence first, and this brings me to the rebel/contrarian issue, because it seems to me that people like this 'shoot their mouths off' before actually doing any 'fact checking' far too often."

This is an interesting statement. He is saying that he could not find any use of the phrase "the opening" prior to when he began using it in 2007 or 2008. He also claims he did "research" on this. Let's get to the "fact checking." The above quotation is an example of someone actively delving into the semantics of perfume description, choosing to use a specific phrase, and inexplicably suggesting (though not definitively stating) that he invented the phrase, or at least that he put it into widespread use. This may seem innocent enough, but it's the sort of thing I'd strongly caution against if you're an aspiring fragrance writer. "Fact checking" by readers is pretty easy. It will expose your errors, and your credibility as a writer could get seriously dented up as a result.

In this instance, one can see that the phrase "the opening" as applied to fragrance reviews and descriptions is used many times prior to 2007, by serious bloggers and casual reviewers alike. In July of 2005, the popular fragrance blog "Now Smell This" posted the following review of Versace's The Dreamer:

"The opening of the juniper and lily really help temper and develop the tobacco notes, and it is this lily note that I find most intriguing (lily? in a men's scent?) as it brings a cool freshness to the edges of the fragrance. Looking at the notes, I wonder where the iris is, as it's virtually undetectable to my nose. As the scent relaxes on the skin, the tobacco mellows and merges with the amber and the almost coconut-y tarragon note becomes apparent."

In October of 2002, reviewer "hirondelle" had this to say about Le Parfum de Therese on art-et-parfum:

"The citrus at the opening of this perfume is a little sour-smelling for me. But the sourness fades rapidly and as soon as the jasmine starts to emerge I'm ready to enjoy this lovely scent."

Mild variances of the phrase were also used in 2006 by two different reviewers of Etro's Royal Pavillion:

"Interesting opening but it turns a way too sharp on my skin. I have a mixed feelings about it, like something is missing here in its composition." - alice_alix

"The beautiful opening 30 minutes of this honeysuckle/gardenia scent is simple enough to get someone to associate fresh flowers with your presence. However, I don't care for the generic sharp, perfumey drydown." - jlea

I found yet another example in a comment posted in 2006 on Luckyscent.com's page for Gothic II Perfume Oil by Loree Rodkin:

"Not a particularly sophisticated composition, but pleasant enough. Alison's black cat is probably 'fascinated' with this scent because of the civet note! If you like incense-y head shop smells, this could be your holy grail. BEWARE though, and do not apply immediately before going out, lest you bowl your companions over with the overwhelmingly sour 'cat musk odor' in the opening of this perfume!"

Another example can be found in a 2005 review by Victoria for Tubereuse Criminelle on Bois de Jasmin:

"If one judges fragrances by the top notes, this is a perfect example of the need to rectify that practice. Weathering the initial opening is worthwhile, since the ugly duckling can turn into a beautiful swan."

And check out this 2005 comment by "Laura" on the same blog under Hermes Un Jardin Sur Le Nil:

"I bought a bottle of this and have worn it often enough this summer, but I don’t love, I finally admit. There is an odd bready or doughy note that spoils the opening of the fragrance for me. I guess it is the mango, but for me, as I said, the note smells like bread. The drydown is nice."

I could go on citing specific examples of people using the phrase "the opening" in comments and fragrance reviews prior to 2007, but I think at this point you can see that the term was most certainly widely used before it ever appeared on this blog, or in reviews by this blogger. The evidence compiled above raises the question as to what sort of "research" the blogger did before publishing his latest post on the subject. Perhaps our friend at Wordpress is the one "shooting off his mouth" before doing his "fact checking," but I'll let you decide. What is telling about him though is that he contradicts himself in his personal presentation, another thing writers should avoid. This is a clue to readers that his material is on unsteady ground; if your tone is uneven, it's likely your arguments aren't on the level, either. He wants to qualify his points by suggesting that any enlightenment regarding the usage of "the opening" is welcome, while also suggesting in a noncommittal, non-competitive way that he isn't seeking any critique from readers, supposedly because he doesn't care about being wrong:

"I certainly don’t care, though I’d be curious to know for sure . . . 'right fighting' with a rebel/contrarian personality is futile. There isn’t going to be any kind of 'final showdown,' or even a world championship match."

Yet only a few lines later, having read in my post the information he claimed to be curious about, his persona shifts abruptly to one of a "right-fighter," expressing frustration and competitiveness, as if a "final showdown" chess match is occurring after all:

"The key question seems to be, why was this an 'issue' in the first place? This episode seems to be an excellent example of how the mind of the rebel/contrarian functions, so is this 'check and mate?'"

It took exactly three minutes and eight seconds to cull these excerpts from fragrance sites, and it will likely take even less time for readers to uncover your errors when you make them. Of course, exercising humility as a writer reduces the likelihood that anyone would want to "expose" your errors, so I advise keeping a good slice of humble pie on the desk beside your computer. Reviewing perfumes isn't as easy as it looks. Writing is a craft, and using the written word to cogently express perfume experiences puts you directly into the abstract and invariably subjective realm of scent perception. Try not to make your job even harder by making bizarre linguistic ownership claims and blithely throwing the word "research" around in the age of search engines and internet archives. I'd add that if you don't want something to be an issue, don't bring it up. I sincerely hope the blogger I mentioned here is better at backgammon than he is at chess!


  1. Haha! I *believe* I invented the term 'albatross bottle' to mean one you regret buying, that sort of lies around your house spooking you periodically, but if you can find an earlier citation than mine, I'll eat that humble pie by my computer with pleasure. ;)

  2. WTH?
    "The opening" is used so frequently it is practically 'cliche' in fragrance reviews & wine tasting.
    Perhaps your blogger friend needs to expand his vocabulary in addition to his 'fact checking'-
    Narcissism - a grandiose view of one's own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type.

    Rather than 'check and mate' (yet another cliche) the circumstance is rather one of 'right or wrong' (very unpopular situation for Cluster B personality types- 'blame & shame' is their preferred operative).
    Bizarre linguistic ownership claims and "research," indeed.

    1. This has been an unfortunate behavioral pattern for our friend at Wordpress for years.

      I have no idea why anyone would want to suggest they were the "first" to use any word or phrase in our vocabulary, and within this context, nor do I understand what he was attempting to get at by proving to his readers that his research skills are severely questionable, but whatevs. The internet is a strange place.


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