Dictionary Limitations Problem

Recently I have a problem with dictionaries. Often I want to say things in Japanese and also know a bit of vocabulary to express it but not enough to really say what I want in correct Japanese.

An example would be that there is a smell in the air and I would want to ask someone if they smell it and talk about our sense of smell etc. So the words I know are 匂う for example and 匂い and 臭い and then there are all kind of connotations for each I get wrong and I completely fail to translate the aspect of being able or not to smell something. This is just one of like hundred examples that occur every day and if I ask my husband in English he can’t give any answer except 難しい and claims there is no translation for it in Japanese like always.

I have the feeling that a dictionary can only teach you a language to a certain point and I should have long time ago learned phrases rather than words. But where do you get the phrases? Just living in Japan and immerse myself seems to have failed to teach me simple expressions like “I can smell better now than before” or something. And JLPT is no help there at all. Are there some resources for common expressions or how do you all really create output? I have absolutely no clue on how to find an answer for the above question.


For the specific thing, to me it sounds like you want to talk about 嗅覚 (sense of smell) more than 匂う, which is an intransitive verb where the scent is the subject.

But I see Vanilla responding, so that will be more general advice about input.




I mean it’ll come as no surprise that I get my phrases from books and visual novels mainly. I think just wanting to say something and then looking out for it in your input is really just key since its very easy to input something but still lack the ability to recall it.

Although, I think that those phrases aren’t very simple. I mean, its simple I guess, but they’re not common enough to where you would be hearing them all the time. Like if you wanted to know how to say the smell thing, reading stuff on covid may be a good idea since you know thats a symptom right? At least, thats what I would do. In that sense you would get targeted input, I guess you could say. Usually thats what I do when I need to think of how to say something but I cant find it by searching my books. I just look up an article about something that I think will contain it and look for their phrasing.

Im pretty sure its 嗅覚が戻った by the way. Or 少し could be inserted if you mean its just partially back. And when you cant smell maybe use like 匂いが分からない or something. Again though, I would look at like covid articles or an article about the exact cause of your loss or return of smell. Having fast reading and scanning ability speeds it up of course, but even if you cant scan fast I think thats the best bet. Asking a native too, obv. But in this case I would just google like コロナ 嗅覚 or something. maybe コロナ 症状 if you didnt even know 嗅覚


I’m having flashbacks to not being able to figure out whether to use 嗅覚 or 臭覚. :sob:


The Wikipedia article about Covid-19 uses 嗅覚 a bunch and doesn’t use 臭覚 at all, but it’s possible regular folks are different.


Being precise on grammar surely helps, thank you :joy:

Thank you. How do you search your books? Are they digital? Looking up an article sounds like the best idea. That would mean in order to improve the conversational skills it would be necessary to make output training about topics I would want to talk about it seems. So far I was hesitant to write a diary or something the like because I had the feeling that output solidifies my mistakes rather than improving anything, could be an excuse…
But now I think it could work to choose a topic, like smell, and try to write some ideas about it (whatever) using phrases from articles etc. Someone would have to check it though, I think my husband wouldn’t do it.

Thinking about it, for a bit more serious English translations I used Linguee, maybe that could also help with Japanese. I haven’t read about someone using it here in the forum.

Btw this question is totally not Covid related. Just general smell abilities so maybe 嗅覚 might be too technical. That’s where the nuances become difficult to judge for me.

1 Like

Last time I looked into it I concluded that using 嗅覚 would be better because the Japanese version of Sense of smell - Wikipedia leads to 嗅覚 - Wikipedia. It also says the following, which is pretty clear cut:



Makes sense, since 嗅覚 has 嗅, which is used to write 嗅ぐ, the transitive verb for smelling or sniffing things. While 臭覚 has 臭, which is more about the scent itself.


If I use DeepL to translate “Do you smell that?” the proposals are:


that would be wrong considering 匂う is an intransitive verb, right? The meaning would be “Does it (have a) smell?” or am I completely wrong (wouldn’t surprise me in this matter).

Sometimes browsing 英辞郎 can give some hint.
For example I tried a few things like “can smell”/“strange smell” and got some interesting sentences like:

smell a strange odor

smell someone’s scent in the air

“I have a terrible cold and can’t smell or taste a thing.”

“I have a cold, so I can’t smell.”

Unfortunately most of the time, I still end up with choice paralysis, and doubt about nuances and what is natural or not… :sweat_smile:

Edit: Searching through twitter also sometimes work to find casual/practical phrase


Ah! Good idea.

wait yeah its 嗅覚, I wasn’t thinking when I typed that. My brain saw 臭 in the original post and I just went on autopilot lol. My bad.

I have almost all of my books converted into plaintext format in a folder. Sublime text editor allowed me to search across all those files for all instances of something.


“Do you smell that” usually means “has that scent reached your nose and have you noticed it”. That’s why 匂う is typical for those translations. It usually doesn’t mean “Did you intentionally use your nose to sense that”.

嗅ぐ means to intentionally sniff something, like to hold a flower to your nose and breathe in.

English is very sloppy about the use of “smell” to mean the action or the scent, and that is sometimes a source of humor as well.

EDIT: It’s a bit like 見える and 見る in how intentionality is handled. Incidentally sensed things are 匂う and 見える, intentionally sensed things are 嗅ぐ and 見る.


Same in German, and that’s part of my confusion here…

Ah, that’s a Satori moment now. I always thought smelling and seeing to be an active process. What you say is, that a transitive verb is being translated into an intransitive one because it describes what is going on better than the transitive verb in Japanese would? Interesting.

I see, I had also problems with this. Partially because I seem to have a primitive mindset. I was really upset when in physics class the teacher talked about how seeing is light rays reflected into your eyes, the whole concept didn’t convince me. For me seeing still is something active.

I suppose that’s true. We happen to use a transitive verb in English for noticing scents. But it’s usually not something actively sought.

EDIT: 99% of the time I use the word 嗅ぐ I am talking about my cat (pictured in avatar) sniffing things. Also great word for animals smelling stuff is クンクン.

1 Like

This totally explains my confusion. Sometimes in cases like this one it is necessary to put in more time in order to understand why some expressions would be wrong in any language. Probably a dictionary couldn’t cover these details. In the end there is a quite deep question behind these phrases, is the perception objective or subjective and if partially both to which degree. Interestingly I would have thought the eastern concept would have favored the subjective approach.

That’s your cat? Cute! I think I am 100% wrong with everything connected to smelling. I thought 嗅ぐ is something more elegant, not to say cats are not elegant, but I thought it would be used for something like a poem or so. I never heard クンクン neither. The only thing I am a bit sure of is that it is not good to use 臭い because it is too negative.

1 Like

Nah, yeah, you can use 嗅ぐ for completely inelegant things. For instance, checking if something spoiled could be 嗅いでみる.

1 Like

I start to suspect here that part of my problem is, that my husband doesn’t have a good sense of smell, he sometimes said that. Also if something is a bit questionable in the fridge he just eats it. I might have a lack of natural exposure to the concept of smell in Japanese :thinking:


Animals, and Chiya from Urara Meirochou. :upside_down_face:

(It actually never occurred to me that this was only for animals. It suits the character, who is often shown to be wild and animalistic, but without knowing that its usage was limited I would have made incorrect assumptions.)