#WordOfTheWeek: Vellichor

I love a used bookstore. An old windowed door tucked into an unassuming city block, worn carpet with faded caution tape marking unexpected stairs between rooms full to bursting with shelves and tables of books. Here and there, barely used hardcovers almost shimmer; small beacons amidst volumes that have settled into the distinctive yellow of old paper. Sound is muffled and distant except for that one creaky floorboard; the air is still and should be musty, but you breathe in the scent of paper and ink and the traces of oils from the hands of these books’ previous owners, and musty is never the adjective you would use. We feel wistful, nostalgic, pensive. We are slowly, sensuously imbued with an oddly restorative vellichor.

Anne Uhmeyer
Word of the Week

Used bookstores are odd little crossroads between contented solitude and ethereal connection. Holding a used book is a quiet introduction not only to the story contained within, but also to the previous owner. Often a page or two are still folded down as placeholders. Cracks in the spine reveal sections that were returned to, reread and savored. Perhaps there are notes penciled into the margins – heresy for some, unobtrusive or even delightful to others. The edges of the pages have softened under a stranger’s hands, the corners particularly so; it’s easy to imagine a reader absently rubbing the edge of the page between finger and thumb while they read. We readers do that. 

What is Vellichor?

Vellichor, noun. Coined in August 2013 by John Koenig, the creator of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, an online blog dedicated to defining neologisms (newly crafted words) for emotions that have not yet been adequately defined in English. Taken from “vellum” (high quality parchment made from prepared animal skins) and “ichor” (the ethereal fluid that is the blood of the gods in classical Greek myth), vellichor was defined by Koenig in 2013 as:

the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.
A black-and-white photo of an old man inside the bookstore.
Photo Credit: Unsplash

Koenig’s Dictionary, which began as a blog and a series of video essays, was published in book form in 2021. By then, many of the neologisms within it had been happily adopted by logophiles and readers who were thrilled by the evocative words he introduced: sonder (the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own), ellipsism (sadness that you’ll never be able to know how history turns out), the wends (frustration that you’re not enjoying an experience as much as you should), chrysalism (the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm). Vellichor and its fellows in the Dictionary pinpointed very specific human emotions that were evocative and relatable.

Evolution into Olfaction: Adding Dimensions to Definition

Though the term is barely more than a decade old, vellichor has captured the attention and imagination of a sufficient number of people that its functional definition is already evolving in a fascinating way. Since its construction echoes the now-familiar petrichor, which describes “a pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions” (OED), many have begun to include scent in their definition of vellichor, usually the scent of old paper and books. Compass Box, a Scotch whiskey bottler, offers a high-end variety named Vellichor and meant to evoke just such a scent. Dungeons and Dragons (5th edition) includes a legendary magic sword named Vellichor that smells of “a cool spring breeze and fresh grass” and can cut through dimensions. In perfumery circles, the definition of vellichor only briefly mentions the emotion of wistfulness and focuses instead on the scent of old books, which has long been an area of fascination. There are dozens of perfumes with names like “Old Books,” “Dead Writers,” “Whispers in the Library,” and “Bibliothèque.”

A photo of old bookshelves filled with books.
Photo Credit: Unsplash

In fact, the scent of old books has been a fascination in scientific circles for longer than we’ve had vellichor as a word. “Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books,” a scientific study published in 2009 and led by Matija Strlic, analyzed the compounds that the various components of books – leather, glue, paper, ink – released as they decay. She described the smell of old books as “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness; this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents.” 

The hint of vanilla Strlic mentions comes from a compound called lignin, a compound present in all wood-based paper, which is closely related to vanillin, the primary extract of the vanilla bean. Interestingly, vanillin has been scientifically proven to be calming, significantly reducing what’s known as the ‘startle reflex,’ to the point that it is being trialed in fragrancing areas of high stress in hospitals, particularly MRI and CT scan rooms and areas where patients receive chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Given lignin’s close relationship to this proven calming compound, perhaps this helps explain why so many of us feel calmer and refreshed by visiting used bookstores. 

It IS a Real Word

When looking into newer words like vellichor and last week’s #word of the week pluviophile, it’s common to find naysayers who insist that these neologisms aren’t REAL words, according to some nebulous criteria that usually boils down to “it wasn’t a word when I was little” or “someone purposefully crafted it.” It’s entertainingly baffling to find these arguments, because as a linguist, I know that this is how languages evolve. New words are introduced because of some gap in our vocabulary; whether that is attached to new technology or as an aesthetically pleasing way to introspect on the human condition. Old words attached to defunct ideas fall away. Slang changes from generation to generation. 

A photo of a lady looking at the books inside an old bookstore.
Photo Credit: Unsplash

Every word we use was once a neologism. Even 150 years ago, a significant percentage of the English-speaking population used thee/thy/thine 2nd person pronouns instead of you/your/yours; now, we are hard-pressed to find someone who can use the former correctly. Email was coined in the 1970s, but no one could claim today that it’s “not a real word.” Language is constantly changing and updating, and that’s part of why it’s so fascinating. Vellichor isn’t even included in traditional dictionaries yet, but already it’s evolving to incorporate a particular scent profile in addition to the original definition. It’ll be interesting to see what the definition is when it finally gets included in the OED. 

In the meantime, make sure you get a chance sometime soon to visit your favorite used bookstore and drink in the vellichor; and remember – it’s scientifically proven to be good for your mental health!

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