Duolingo’s Latin cheese

From Mike Pope on Facebook yesterday, this Duolingo exercise:


(#1) Mike’s note: “Duolingo is really great for learning those phrases you need every day”; word by word: ‘Marcus cheese greatly smells’ (with verb-final syntax)

A little hymn to Marcus as a cheesy comestible:

Marcus smells greatly of cheese

ripe, redolent of cheddar, his
pubic bacteria broadcasting his
manscent to any intimate nose, a
deeply tasty hunk, serve him up
with a young cabernet

Well then: some Latin, and some reflections on cheese and male sweat.

The Latin. Details, word by word:

— proper noun Marcus: 2nd declension, here in the nom.sg.

— noun cāseum, acc.sg. of cāseus, a 2nd declension noun meaning ‘cheese’

— adv. valde, derived from the adj. validus ‘strong’, used as an intensifier (‘very; very much, greatly’)

— verb olet, pres. 3sg. of oleō (infinitive olēre, perfect oluī); 2nd conjugation, meaning ‘I smell; I emit an odor, especially a bad odor’

Side point: the Engish verb smell. English has two odor-related lexical items here, with strikingly different argument structures. I won’t explore the deails here, but the big picture, from NOAD:

verb smell: 1 [with object] [a] perceive or detect the odor or scent of (something): I think I can smell something burning. … 2 [no object] [a] emit an odor or scent of a specified kind: [with complement]:  the food smelled and tasted good | it smelled like cough medicine …  [b, specialization of a] have a strong or unpleasant odor: if I don’t get a bath soon I’ll start to smell | it smells in here. …

Cheese and onions. From a light-hearted, but by no means vacuous, piece in Discover magazine: “The Nose Knows: Men’s Sweat Smells Like Cheese, Women’s Like Onions” by Boonsri Dickinson on 2/2/09:

We know that a woman can tell whether a man is attracted to her from the scent of his sweat. But the finer details of sexual odor have escaped us, until now: Swiss scientists say they’ve discovered that men’s sweat smells like cheese, while women smell like onions when they perspire.

Researchers from a Swiss company called Firmenich asked 24 men and 25 women to go in a sauna or pedal on an exercise bike for 15 minutes, to collect armpit sweat. The  smells were then rated by “independent smell assessors.” (Wow, that must have been a fun job!) Of the two groups, the scientists agreed: Women had the more “unpleasant” smell.

The researchers also discovered why women’s sweat smelled like onions: The female sweat had ten times the level of an odorless sulfur-containing compound than men. It turns out that when this sulfur compound is mixed with bacteria under the arm, it creates a chemical called thiol — and this chemical is known for smelling like onions.

Men on the other hand, had increased levels of an odorless fatty acid, which gives off a cheesy smell once it mixes with the armpit bacteria. To find out why the bacteria influenced the odor of the sweat, the researchers performed sensory analysis on lab grown skin bacteria and found that men and women have a different bacterial make-up.

(This posting of mine doesn’t pretend to survey what is known about the chemistry of sweat and the details of olfactory perception, just to open up the topic.)

The findings fit pretty well with my personal experience , especially as to the cheese component of my genital odor (when my crotch gets kind of ripe it definitely smells cheesy, but not in a way that’s at all offensive to me — on the other hand, it’s my crotch, so I’m not an unbiased judge). But that’s not a scientific finding.

Others have shared my olfactory experiences:


(#2) From the Whisper site

Cheese has a smell because it’s created by fermentation by bacteria; this is true of all cheeses, not just the famously stinky or smelly varieties. Young cheddar cheese, for instance, has a relatively light smell, but the smell (and consequently the taste) intensifies as the cheese ages. Processing cheese for various cheese foods greatly reduces the smell.

But back to the Discover piece. Worth noting: this was a tiny study (only 49 subjects overall), and apparently the subjects were all Swiss (though I note that plenty of studies have made universalistic claims on the basis of subject groups entirely composed of American college students). Then the claim that men and women (as groups) have different bacterial make-up on the skin cries out for validation in detail (which bacteria?), and, if true, for explanation (how could this come about?). I’m not at all suggesting that the claim is false, only that it hasn’t been established and presents an intriguing scientific puzzle.

Also, as always, it’s worth asking who underwrote a study and why. In this case, the who is very clear, but I’m not sure why.

Firmenich. They are indeed Swiss, and they’re a really big thing. From Wikipedia:

Firmenich SA [founded in 1895] is a private Swiss company in the fragrance and flavor business. It is the largest privately owned company in the field and ranks number two worldwide. Firmenich has created perfumes for over 100 years and produced a number of well-known flavors.

Firmenich employs 10,000 people across 66 facilities [around the world, with headquarters in Geneva]

From the company’s pages:

We create positive emotions to enhance wellbeing, naturally.

Swiss and family-owned for over 120 years, we create fragrances and flavors for the world’s most desirable brands, delighting billions of consumers every day.

You might well not know the company’s name, but you’ve certainly experienced their products, which are marketed under other firm’s names or incorporated into other firm’s products as ingredients.

So, they create fragrances for a huge number of other companies, which are then advertised and sold under company labels. For example, for Hugo Boss:


(#3) High masculinity, in name, packaging, and (the company believes) fragrance

Then from the company on flavors; they produce an extraordinary variety of these, but have some specialties:

Firmenich excels in key tonalities: citrus, vanilla, seafood and mint, and our experience ensures that we consistently deliver the absolute appropriate flavor solution for every one of our customers’ products.

… Conveniently located on the west coast of Norway, the Firmenich Seafood Expertise Center in Ålesund is the center of our seafood expertise. With direct access to fish from the North Atlantic and the Barents Sea, the facility uses seafood raw materials to produce natural extracts, hydrolysate and concentrated oils, liquids, pastes and powder flavors.

Each year, Firmenich processes 10,000 tons of seafood raw materials, largely by-product from the seafood industry. Through sophisticated biotechnological processes, we convert the by-product, which was previously disposed of in the sea, to create seafood extracts and flavors such as codfish, shrimp, lobster, crab, squid and other popular seafood tonalities. Our customers use the flavors in soup, stocks, sauces and ready-to-eat meals.

On the enterprise, this story from Eurofish magazine’s 6/2016 issue:


(#4) We have all no doubt been consuming Fermenich seafood flavorings, even in cereal bars

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