How to Talk About Perfume, Part 3: A Glossary

This is by no means a complete perfume glossary, and it's not trying to be. For one, we decided not to delve into common ingredients—they're easily Google-able, and other perfume blogs have covered them in depth. What we have gathered here are a collection of terms often used to describe perfumes, to help you navigate the world of flowery perfume copywriting and learn to express your own olfactory preferences. Hope it helps!


ACCORD - You know how sodium and chloride combined makes table salt, or how music notes played together create a chord? An accord is the perfume equivalent. It's a scent made up of several scented ingredients (also known as notes—for more on that, see below) that blend together to create a new, distinct fragrance. 

ALDEHYDES - Chemical compounds that provide a brightness and sparkle to perfumes—a hit of floral/citrusy/fruity right off the top. 

ANIMALIC - Perfume ingredients traditionally derived from the animal kingdom, like musk (taken from a male musk deer's scrotal glands), ambergris (from a whale's digestive system), and civet (from the civet cat's anal glands).  Since it is both unethical and expensive to harvest these compounds, they have been replaced, for the most part, by synthetics.

ANOSMIA - The inability to smell. Some people develop anosmia following an accident or illness; others are born with selective anosmias, i.e. the inability to smell certain scent compounds. 

BALSAMIC - This isn't, as you might assume, the smell of balsamic vinegar. In perfume, balsams are sticky, resinous materials sourced from trees that give off a sweet/vanilla-like/woody odor. 

DIFFUSION - The way a perfume permeates the air around the wearer.

DRYDOWN - This is what we call the final stage of a fragrance—how it settles on your skin after a few hours of wear.

HEADY - Used to describe perfumes that make you feel intoxicated, a little light-headed, dizzy; in my experience, heady scents come with a generous dose of floral notes. The best example I can think of is Tom Ford's Black Orchid.

INDOLIC - Indoles are chemical compounds that smell like flowers when used sparingly, and like poop at higher concentrations. They occur naturally in flowers like tuberose and jasmine—flowers exuding deep, rich scents that can be so ripe, they border on rotten. An indolic perfume is what you'd call sensual or carnal—warm and a little bit dirty. Like night blossoms.

LASTING POWER - Also referred to as longevity. This is the amount of time the perfume is perceptible on your skin, from the moment of application. 

NOSE - A perfumer. Love the usage, hate the word.

NOTE - This is also a term borrowed from music.  In most cases, it's synonymous with "ingredient," i.e. something that produces a smell of its own. Some notes refer to everyday materials we're familiar with, like vanilla and grapefruit. Others, like musk and amber, are technically accords, but used as a shorthand.

ODOR FATIGUE - In the same way that our ears can tune out background noise, our noses are designed to pick up on novel smells in our environments.  So when you're exposed to a smell for too long, or smell too many fragrances at once, you end up not being able to discern smells at all. That's why you should never buy a bottle after smelling a bunch at the perfume counter. Chances are, your nose is no longer registering smells accurately, so the same perfume will smell completely different the next time you put it on. 

OZONIC -  A term used to describe scent compounds that emulate the crisp smell of fresh, clean air. Used a lot in sporty, summery colognes marketed to men.

POWDERY - A scent that's sweet, dry and kind of dusty, like old makeup compacts. The usual suspects: Iris, violet, musk, tonka. 

SILLAGE - Saving a favorite for last. Sillage is the French word for "wake." It's used in perfume writing to describe the scent that a person leaves behind—what you pick up on when walking behind someone, or when someone's just left the room. 


Photo credit: Pinterest (Fika Café in Toronto)