The Dilettante's Mini-Guide To Fancy Perfume Vocabulary

4 honors-level fragrance terms to impress your bourgeois friends, plus justification for splurging on a scent you'll wear every day.
Publish date:
May 1, 2013
fragrances, perfumes, vocabulary

I’ve been diagnosed with mild Asperger’s by more than one ex-boyfriend. Whatever. Maybe I do fall somewhere on the spectrum, but I don’t think I have any real issues because of it.

I do occasionally go on binges of fixating on a particular subject. For example, I tend to get really into perfume when I’m feeling particularly broke and hopeless, because perfume is all about that glamorous escapism. It’s so Oscar Wilde, like “Give me the luxuries and I can dispense with the necessities.”

Anyway, I wouldn’t call myself a “perfumista,” partly because it's a stupid word, and partly because I’m definitely not truly obsessed compared to some hardcore perfume addicts out there. However, I'd say with confidence that I know more than probably 90% of people, especially out here in the wild Midwest.

I’m not going to waste your time going into the difference between eau de parfum and eau de toilette because everyone knows that. Instead, here’s some slightly next-level stuff in case you want to sound like you kind of know what you’re talking about when you’re chatting at your local Saks perfume counter.


Also spelled oud, it’s the distillation of agarwood and is “the most expensive substance known to man”--or at least that’s what a perfume counter rep told me once. Yeah, that sounds like a crock, but it really is rare and has been valued for centuries.

Obviously, aoud smells kind of woody, but it has kind of a funk to it. It doesn’t really smell like anything else, though, so it’s hard to describe. You’ll have to try some different types if you’re interested in getting a feel for it. On some people it smells kind of like urine, though.


Benzoin is a really common element in fragrances--even the mainstream ones. It’s a sap that’s easily mistaken for vanilla. I’d describe it as a sharper, cleaner kind of vanilla, if that makes sense. It can be unisex, but it has a gourmand quality to it.


This is a category of perfumes, and they’re kind of confusing. Essentially, it’s a musky moss base note, but it also refers to the whole composition.

There are different types of chypres, like citrus and patchouli. They are also typically “animalic,” which means they have animal secretions in them like ambergris or civet. Ambergris comes from sperm whale intestines; civet comes from the anal glands of the African civet cat. I know! So gross it sounds like a joke, right?! Well, it’s true.


This is a funny word to me because it’s rooted in boating terminology. It refers to the “wake” or projection. If someone says a perfume has “weak sillage,” that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that it “hangs close” to the skin.


A bottle of perfume lasts a very long time! On average, a bottle of 3.4 ounces (100mL) has about 1200 sprays. This varies from brand to brand, but it still breaks down to almost a full year if you use four sprays and apply once per day.

I suspect most people in the world do not wear perfume every day, so realistically, it will last even longer than that.This is why you shouldn’t feel bad about spending a chunk of change on some really nice stuff because it breaks down to mere cents per use.

But how unfortunate if you’re interested in a different fragrance for all of your moods, seasons and occasions! Not to brag, but I have about 15 years’ worth of perfume, and I don’t even consider my collection all that immense. It can get out of control really quickly, especially if you go down the rabbit hole of perfume forums like Basenotes.

So, on the rare occasion these days that I do decide that I require yet another bottle of perfume, I go for the 1.7 ounce bottles, even though the thought of paying dollars and dollars and dollars for AN OUNCE and some change makes me cringe.

To get the most out of my admittedly excessive perfume collection, I also resort to layering multiple scents, applying after work, and applying before bed.

Applying before bed is my absolute favorite because it’s fun to pick a scent to fall asleep to and wear it just for you and/or your partner. It also makes your bed smell good if you’re not washing your sheets every single week.

What do you smell like? Tell me in the comments--I love a good Amazon blind buy.