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.

Studies from University of Rome in the area of langerhans-cell histiocytosis quality of care published.(Report) here langerhans cell histiocytosis

Biotech Week November 4, 2009 New research, ‘Langerhans cell histiocytosis: oral/periodontal involvement in adult patients,’ is the subject of a report. “Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH) is a clonal proliferative multisystem disease. Although bone and mucosae have been classified as non-risk organs, their involvement may increase the risk of disease progression,” researchers in Rome, Italy report (see also Langerhans-Cell Histiocytosis Quality of Care).

“Oral and periodontal lesions are burdened with a significant impairment of quality of life for associated signs, symptoms and loss of function. Most of information regards paediatric disease; the disease in adults has received limited attention. A total of 31 adult patients affected by immuno-histopathology confirmed LCH have been prospectively examined; attention was paid to the occurrence and characterization of oral lesions. Twelve patients developed oral lesions. Posterior regions of jawbones were always affected; the involvement of anterior regions was not constant. Unifocal oral involvement was significantly associated with multisystemic disease while multifocal lesions were associated with unisystemic disease. Oral disease presented with soft tissue ulcers (50% of cases), gingival bleeding (66.7%), pain (83.4%), periodontal damage (50%), tooth mobility (16.7%), non-healing extraction socket (8.3%); 41.6% of patients complained of negative outcomes on quality of life. Oral lesions were easily handled with local measures,” wrote S. Annibali and colleagues, University of Rome. this web site langerhans cell histiocytosis

The researchers concluded: “Posterior regions require attention; single oral lesions may be part of multisystemic disease; oral and periodontal lesions may be early signs of disease reactivation.” Annibali and colleagues published their study in Oral Diseases (Langerhans cell histiocytosis: oral/periodontal involvement in adult patients. Oral Diseases, 2009;15(8):596-601).

For additional information, contact S. Annibali, University La Sapienza, Dept. of Odontostomatologic Sciences, Rome, Italy.

Publisher contact information for the journal Oral Diseases is: Blackwell Publishing Inc., 350 Main St., Malden, MA 02148, USA.


  1. hksche2000 -  November 16, 2010 - 7:58 pm

    Anosmia = absent sense of smell (SOM as in Median Cleft S. or Kallmann S.
    Hyposmia = decreased SOM
    Hyperosmia = increased SOM as in adrenal insufficiency
    Parosmia = inability to identify a quality of smell correctly with deviations typically towards bad smells (cacosmia).

  2. coldbear -  November 5, 2010 - 7:47 am

    If Parosmia describes an overly acute sense of smell, what is the term for a lack of smell?

    I once worked with a young lady with this problem. We had a horrible smell of dead rat in the office that she just could not smell. The odor actually turned out to be a chemical introduced into electrical wall outlets that begin to burn, the idea is to detect the problem before it gets serious. As we were not aware of this, we went the dead-rat route, realizing the truth just before the outlet flamed.

    Her inability to smell the very strong odor could’ve resulted in catastrophe. So there is more to the sense of smell than just smelling the flowers.

  3. molli -  November 4, 2010 - 3:48 pm

    it smells dirty and of burnt apple pie…wierd

  4. louis paiz -  November 4, 2010 - 9:34 am

    could that be possible that the sence of smell get embriagatted buy particles thats why when buying or trying the best perffumes or sophisticated colognes one ask for coffe grindded when shopping for the best.because after smelling more than one all of them smell the same. thanks.

  5. WHIMPER | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  November 4, 2010 - 6:50 am

    [...] stiffens while it’s limper — and go out with the “STARDUST” instead of some musty religious “WHIMPER”. –>>Rupert [...]

  6. MUSTY | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  November 3, 2010 - 11:05 pm

    [...] “MUSTY” for us, Lusty, though a song that doesn’t “SMELL” — Odoriferous aromatherapy — it’s the pheromones that sell. — The [...]

  7. mark v -  November 3, 2010 - 9:49 am


    Oh well sure, if you ACTUALLY observed an apple sitting somewhere in front of you when in reality there was none, I’d agree.

    If it triggers you to pictured some scene years ago in a different place, I’d just call that a boring apple memory.
    It might technically classify as a Synesthesium, but it seems so light and mundane to really make me count it.

    Like calling two buttered pieces of bread a sandwich. The form is correct, but its got no spirit.

  8. stinky as sweet as it is -  November 2, 2010 - 8:54 pm

    A word ‘stink’ sometimes has connotations of a positive sense in such a case that a positive expression in its literal way fails to convey its message.

  9. stinky rabbit -  November 2, 2010 - 8:44 pm

    A voice that had not been heard for years sounded as stinky rabbit as it used to be.

    Over and out.

  10. Shannon -  November 2, 2010 - 4:58 pm

    This web site helps me every day with hw.It’s asome!!!!!!!!!!!!:)

  11. Cyberquill -  November 2, 2010 - 2:48 pm

    @Mark V: As I understand it, synesthesia simply refers to the activation of one sense via stimulation of another. So if smelling an apple makes me see an apple, it seems just as synesthetic as smelling an apple and seeing a space ship. At base, all synesthetic connection are most likely memory-related in some way.

    @Saf: Transderivational Search. Never heard of it. Thanks for the link.

  12. smoothius -  November 2, 2010 - 2:16 pm

    the sense of smell may be the hardest to describe but i’ve heard that it is the also the most deeply inset memories that we have. perhaps the reason we describe smells with pictures is because we always have a memory of the smell reflecting the vision

    also interesting to note that we use phrases invoking the sense of smell to indicate discovery of things in language ex:
    i smell a rat
    follow your nose
    smells like trouble
    sniff out the problem

    i’m lucky to have all my senses intact but always thought i would rather be blind than deaf. this article got me thinking about the rest of the senses in order of importance. i think i would rather see than smell, though much would be missing in the experience of life. of course touch is the most important. Now you can’t really taste without smell other than sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. therefore: five senses in order of personal importance


    anyone else care to chime in on their rankings?

  13. Mark V -  November 2, 2010 - 1:56 pm

    It’d probably be like trying to see particles of Oxygen.

  14. Alicia Meadors -  November 2, 2010 - 12:32 pm

    Lewis S. Ward,

    Accually, you probably can’t see the particles under a microscope. Don’t quote me on this, but, from what I remember from my chemistry classes, the particles are much too small to be seen even by a microscope… But, they are still there. :) If I’m wrong, sorry!!! I really like the “microscophic world”!!! ;D


  15. Bronna -  November 2, 2010 - 12:18 pm

    it means sum10 dhat smell lyk ole socks

  16. Pastry Queen -  November 2, 2010 - 11:38 am

    That’s really cool! Do you also know why tastes seem less intense when you cannot smell anything?

  17. Nathan Hunter -  November 2, 2010 - 11:03 am

    I can’t smell. Like it that way too.

  18. Mark V -  November 2, 2010 - 9:51 am

    I dont think the reference of the rotten apples is synesthesia.
    Im under the assumption its more to do with a crosswiring of senses, not a connecting memory.
    “That rotting apple makes me thing of a rotting apple” is pretty straight forward, unlike “That rotting apple makes me thing of blue, which is a color associated with the number 5.”

  19. Saf -  November 2, 2010 - 8:41 am

    There are plenty of words to describe olfactory experiences, many of them just aren’t in common circulation. I can’t really remember ever having a difficult time explaining a particular smell. What I struggle with is the description of atmospheres and feelings in dreams — which is endlessly frustrating, since that happens to be one of my favorite things to discuss.


  20. JfromI -  November 2, 2010 - 7:00 am

    Man, maybe I have parosmia. I’m overly sensitive to smells. This guy who works with me wears a hand lotion that makes me want to gag. Interesting post today, though!

  21. Jodygirl -  November 2, 2010 - 6:12 am

    Why is there no definition for tribomanisole (TBA)in your dictionary?

  22. Daniel -  November 2, 2010 - 5:55 am

    How do you know I’m not afflicted with parosmia?

  23. Lando -  November 2, 2010 - 5:27 am

    It’s “tribromoanisole.”

  24. lisa -  November 2, 2010 - 5:21 am

    I don’t think it answered the title question. While these Hot Word essays are interesting and generally informative, the titles are always misleading and the piece never lives up to the sensationalized “headline.” I think you could do as well with a more honest straightforward approach like “There are more words to express qualities of vision than other senses; we often rely on imagery to express Sense of smell (olfactory)”

    That’s what the piece was about and it’s as interesting as the phony musty title–I still don’t know what it literally smells like, nor why stinky words are more mysterious…because there is little vocabulary to describe odors? and we use imagery instead? I think these essays are informative and entertaining. I really enjoy them, but the misleading titles need to stop, please. Dictionary.com does not need to sensationalize like the news media does!

  25. KStil -  November 2, 2010 - 4:55 am

    Parosmia…that would be terrible. How badly does that affect your smell of perfumes? Flowers? You’d be the first to detect a sulfur leak, I guess…and if someone was cooking in the house?! I would be so sad if my favorite dishes did not bring me olfactory joy. :(

  26. otte rosenkrantz -  November 2, 2010 - 4:45 am

    Can you tell us the origin of the word musty?

  27. Lewis S. Ward -  November 2, 2010 - 4:36 am

    You mentioned that “the particles that come into with the nose” when we
    are using our sense of smell. Does this suggest that the “particles” might be seen under a microscope. It’s no wonder that it is much easier to be able to describe something we see, as opposed to things we smell or hear. We are able to describe with ease the things we see. Speaking of “words”, what do you think of the new age of “texting” and the way it might “thwart” the effort of teaching our kids how to speak and write correctl

    Lewis S. Ward

  28. Alexandre Magno -  November 2, 2010 - 3:40 am

    thank’s for the huge range of vocabulary and its meanings. I’m from Brazil and taking a big advantage of reading every day your comments.

  29. Michael Dadona -  November 2, 2010 - 12:36 am

    A new word for my today’s learning process, “parosmia” defined as “the perception of odors that are not present.” Also it is an idea for me to compose new blog post about it. Thank you.


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