What does something “musty” literally smell like? Why stinky words are more mysterious

The common cholesterol drug Lipitor was recently subject to a recall due to reports from consumers about a “musty” odor associated with the bottles. We aren’t interested in the drug — this post concerns stink, stench, aroma. Smell may be the hardest sense to describe in words, which is why we are eager to take a whiff.

The sense of smell is known as olfaction and functions through the process of chemoreception. The particles that actually come into contact with your nose and cause a smell are odorants. (Whether fragrant or foul.)

Language typically conveys sight and sound more easily than taste and smell. Think about how many words express qualities of vision versus the other senses. We often have to rely on imagery in order to express our olfactory intention. If you say “That smells like rotten apples,” odds are that a vivid picture appears in your mind’s eye.

Musty” conjures associations like winter sweaters that have been packed away for months or an attic needs to be aired out. The word is used to describe odors that suggest the presence of mold. This makes sense when you consider its origin. Musty is likely a variant of the word “moisty,” or “moist.”

So, why is the stench coming from Lipitor bottles?

The raunchy odor is believed to be coming from the bottles, not the drug. It’s thought to be caused by a chemical that is found in a wood preservative used on the pallets on which the drug was shipped. The chemical is referred to as TBA, which is short for tribomanisole, not “To be announced.”

Apologies if this exploration has caused you duress while utilizing your imaginary nose. Just be glad that you aren’t afflicted with parosmia, a neurological condition where things smell worse than they should.

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