Anosmia

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Okay three’s a pattern.  Now we are up to the third time in recent days that I am writing a blog article directed to some particular word that I think is interesting.  We talked about “regolith” and we talked about “orthostat“.  Today’s word is “anosmia”. Anosmia is a word that we sort of wish we did not need to be reminded of in these difficult times the summer of 2020. But that can’t be helped.  And it is a word that relates to the thing that is in the box in the image at the right.  Here we go …

Anosmia means “the loss of the sense of smell” (Wikipedia article).  The reason that I say that it is a word that we sort of wish we did not need to be reminded of these days is that after Covid-19 had been around for a while, the people who study the disease noticed that some of the people infected with the virus lose their sense of smell.  Yes, for the first month or so that Covid-19 was a thing, the symptoms that we were all told to watch for were just those vague flu-like things — cough, fatigue, fever.  But then after a month or so, the people who study this stuff started noticing that some people who are infected lose their sense of smell.  I was astonished to read recently that in one study, loss of sense of smell turned out to be more predictive of Covid-19 than all other symptoms, including fever, cough or fatigue.

So all of a sudden this has become yet another warning sign.  If a person were to lose his or her sense of smell abruptly, maybe this means the person has gotten infected with Covid-19.  And one of the points of this blog article is that yes there is a word for this and the word is “anosmia”.  

Part of the etymology is very easy to work out.  The prefix “an-” clearly means “not” or “without”, just like “anaerobic” means “without air” and “anaesthetic” means “without sensation”.  But then many of us might get stuck with the “-osmia” part of the word.  It turns out that this comes from the Greek “osme” (“ὀσμή“) which means “smell”.

Please, please, can we find something that is at least diverting or maybe even nice or fun about this word?  Well, the main satisfaction could be if we might effortlessly reel off a list of other English words that also come from the Greek root “ὀσμή”.  Right?  Yeah, but the list is short.  One word.  What is that word?  Well, that word is found in the place that is in the image at the top of this blog article.  Number 76 in the periodic table of the elements.

Osmium.  

The main place where most of us are likely to encounter osmium in everyday life, it turns out, is fountain pen nibs.  If you have a tricorder and you walk into a department store and set the tricorder to beep louder as you get closer to osmium, and you walk toward the place where the beeps are the loudest, then absolutely for sure you will end up at the fountain pen department.  Except for the pesky problem of tricorders not actually existing, I can promise you this is exactly what would happen if you were to try this experiment.

Osmium is the most dense naturally occurring element, being for example about twice as dense as lead.  The very high density makes it unsurprising that osmium has a very high bulk modulus, or in plain language if you take lots of different things and squeeze them to see if they get smaller, osmium fights back the most.  You can squeeze osmium really a lot compared with just about anything else, and it will not get much smaller compared with whatever else you compare it to.

Yes except what is osmium’s connection with the rest of this discussion?  The answer is that the chemists who first isolated the chemical element now known as osmium had to give it a name.  And the particular chemical process they followed to isolate the element led to a residue that was this highly purified element, and the residue was … wait for it … very stinky.  And because it was stinky, the chemists decided to call their newly discovered element “osmium”.  Yes, I am not making this up, that is how they picked the name.  

Yeah, for some elements it’s a big controversy like should element 104 be called “kurchatovium” or should it be called “rutherfordium”.  But for element 76 there was no controversy — it basically got called “the stinky element”.  I take a peculiar delight in telling you that there is actually a Wikipedia page providing a list of over a dozen chemical element naming controversies.

So the main takeaways from this blog article, that you get to save up for the days when once again we lead normal lives that include things like cocktail parties and salon dinners, and yes I promise some day we will once again have such things, are:

  • The word for “loss of the sense of smell” is “anosmia”.
  • The one other word in English that comes from the same Greek root is the name of the chemical element “osmium”.
  • If you have misplaced your fountain pen somewhere around the house, just set your tricorder to hunt for osmium and follow the beeps, and you will find your lost fountain pen right away.

What fun facts can you share about osmium?  Can you name any other English word that comes from the Greek root “ὀσμή”?  Please post a comment below.

5 thoughts on “Anosmia

  1. The list is not that short! You forgot at least coprosma (an Australian shrub that smells like sh*t), crocosmia (a flower that smells like a crocus), osmeterium (a forked process behind the head of certain caterpillars giving out a foul smell), and osmidrosis (stinky sweat).

    This series of articles reminds me of a game some friends of mine used to play at boring parties. Each of them was given an obscure word, and had to use it in conversation as naturally as possible. One friend was given “mallemaroking.” Another guest actually used the word, so all my friend had to do was turn round and ask “What’s mallemaroking?”

    • I didn’t include “coprosma” because I mentioned “coprosmia” and also because “coprosma” (and also “crocosmia”) is a genus and therefore probably doesn’t qualify as an English word.
      “Osmeterium” and “osmidrosis” are good!

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