A Sense for Words

One of the tried, true, and now extinct tests of language acuity on the SAT is the analogy. I mourn its passing. Analogies bring out relationships between words and concepts that I find fascinating.

The short hand for analogies compares two words, presents you with a third word and asks you to find a final fourth word that shares the same relationship with word 3 as the first two words share.


The above can be read, “A puppy is to a dog as a kitten is to what?” All analogies can be read in the same manner, but the generic sentence doesn’t really help solve the relationship. To solve the analogy you can create a more specific sentence to link the words which illuminates the relationship more specifically. For instance, “A puppy is a juvenile dog, a kitten is a juvenile what?” The answer being cat.

Some of our first words as humans describe our most basic emotions and senses, so you’d assume that we’d have a good grasp and choice of words to describe sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing.

My first observation is that of the 5 senses, 4 are straight up nouns but hearing is a gerund. A gerund is a verbal noun that ends in -ing; e.g., walking, talking, sitting, eating. There isn’t a common word for hearing that matches the form of sight, touch, taste, or smell; but there are gerund forms for all those words that do match hearing: seeing, touching, tasting, smelling.

My second observation is that the basic analogy sight:blind::[sense]:[lack of that sense] is hard to answer with a single common word for three of the five senses.

Two are easy:

sight:blind – Blindness is the lack of sight
hearing:deaf – Deafness is the lack of hearing

But what about…

smell: _____
taste: _____
touch: _____

I can’t think of a single common word to fill any of those blanks. Here are some unsatisfying candidates:


an·os·mi·a [an-oz-mee-uh, -os-]
–noun Pathology.
absence or loss of the sense of smell.


a·geu·si·a [uh-gyoo-zee-uh, -zhee-uh, -zhuh]
–noun Pathology.
loss or impairment of the sense of taste.

an·es·the·sia [an-uhs-thee-zhuh]
–noun Pathology.
general loss of the senses of feeling, as pain, heat, cold, touch, and other less common varieties of sensation.

The last one is the most unsatisfactory. First, because anesthesia is a common word but only when applied to the medical inducement of a state of a non-feeling state and/or paralysis. Second, we have a few satellite words that are close in meaning but not sufficient: numb, paralyzed, dulled, unfeeling, desensitized, deadend, etc.

If I had to venture a guess as to why blind and deaf are so common and the other three are not, I would note that blindness and deafness are conditions which are likely to alter interpersonal relations, whereas the other three are not. We must adapt our communications for the blind and deaf, as sight and sound are the two primary means of relaying information.

We would hardly notice if someone couldn’t smell or taste, despite them being common enough maladies. Unless such a person were our chef, their impairment would likely go hidden and unknown.

Lack of touch in a limited region would also likely go unobserved, and universal lack of sense without conjoining paralysis is rare. In those cases, “paralysis” serves to convey the combined meaning. Chronic lack of feeling without paralysis is extremely rare and the name of the condition bares out the observation that one word can’t really capture the meaning: congenital insensitivity to pain.

While the hypothetical “would you rather be blind or deaf” is most often answered “deaf” because people value their sense of sight above others, learning about the consequences of congenital insensitivity to pain really makes you wonder if you wouldn’t rather be blind than anesthesic.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.