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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

doesn’t pass the smell test

(1980’s | legalese? bureaucratese? | “is fishy,” “ain’t right,” “doesn’t smell right,” “stinks to high heaven”)

The primary characteristic of the “smell test,” I suppose, is that it does not measure or evaluate anything that can be rigorously defined. It’s a more or less instantaneous reaction to circumstances that tells you whether to go further or not. And it usually is an ethical test. Passing the smell test means you are on the up-and-up; to do otherwise means your motives or methods are questionable, or worse. An important characteristic of the smell test is that it is anterior to other kinds of questions that might need to be asked. Deciding that an explanation or proposal doesn’t pass the smell test means you need not go any further to evaluate other aspects of the set-up; you simply turn up your nose and go home. It has failed to meet a minimum standard of credibility or honesty.

Even though it is possible to pass a smell test, the phrase is used far more often in the negative — so much so that while it is very easy to think of idiomatic equivalents to “doesn’t pass the smell test,” it’s much harder to come by conventional expressions that mean the opposite. It would be more economical to have a new expression that fills in a gap instead of lapsing into a well-worn groove, but many recent additions to our vocabulary are unnecessary, if not unwanted.

“Smell test” has a more literal meaning: evaluation of olfactory acuity (not very common) or any examination conducted by means of smelling (less uncommon). An example would be sniffing a sample of the grain harvest to see if it’s moldy or otherwise contaminated. The inspector’s nose must decide if the wheat has something wrong with it that makes it unfit to eat. This appears to be a direct ancestor of our more figurative use, since the same operation and results are at work. The odor is off, so we declare the batch unusable and cast it aside.

I found exactly one example of “doesn’t pass the smell test” before 1980 in LexisNexis. The phrase seems not to have taken hold for several years after that. It was used now and then during the eighties, nearly always in legal or political contexts. In a New York Times article (1988), an attorney named Edward Costikyan credited the expression to a colleague, but it seems likely that the phrase had been around for a decade or more by then. There doesn’t seem to have been a definite moment that catapulted “smell test” into everyday language. A few people liked it and used it as a handy way to refer to a kind of quick and final gut reaction that (usually) warned you away from a crime, scam, or cover-up. Maybe it’s obvious to everyone; maybe you have to know something about a particular field or business to detect the problem, but either way, you know it when you see it. Maybe you can’t give a well-defined reason, but you don’t need one with a smell test — a feature that makes it easy to abuse. For the most part, though, “smell test” does not seem to have become a synonym for arbitrary or prejudicial conduct (e.g., your job application didn’t pass the smell test because your name is Takisha). It still has a faintly commendable ring, evidence of an active sense of right and wrong and a pure heart rather than a means of getting rid of people or projects you didn’t like anyway.

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