Words can literally leave a bad taste in my mouth: Tales of a lexical → gustatory synesthete

You know how people enjoy food, and they’re called foodies? Well, I’m a wordie. I love words — especially multi-syllabic and unique words. This fascination started at a young age. As a kid, I’d casually leaf through the monstrous Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary my parents owned, picking up new gems for later use. Occasionally I’d hear words that titillated me and I’d shoot them off before actually looking them up. This caused me some embarrassment as a pre-teen when I ran out of words I was sure of the definition of and hurled out “nymphomaniac” as a last resort during a festive extended-family-wide battle of sentences that began with “I’m a” and ended in words suffixed with “-maniac.” I also read books that were too mature for me and played Scrabble with adults, even though the latter meant getting my ass kicked royally, as the adults I played with were wordies with a couple of decades on me.

But back to the word-food association. Until recently, I was under the mistaken impression that everyone tasted their words. I was casually surfing through Wikipedia (my new Webster’s Unabridged, though admittedly not as reliable) and started reading about synesthesia. I am cross-wired in a few notable and interesting ways, so I was especially enjoying the article when I got to the part about lexical → gustatory synesthesia.

That was the first time I realized that not only were my tasty words a “thing,” they were a thing that not everyone could experience.

I’d never thought much about why or how my words had a taste, because I didn’t think it was anything terribly special, although I did think it was slightly odd that nobody else ever spoke of it. As a kid, I’d learned as a kid that many of the things I’d like to talk about were considered either odd or of no interest to most other people, and as an adult, I learned to only have those discussions with kindred spirits. But I guess I just never thought to bring up something I considered a normal part of the human experience.

Left with a burning desire to have my brain scanned to see what kind of melon-rainbow would appear as the result, I did start to think more about what this meant and how it worked — specifically which words tasted like what food. I read that this particular form of synesthesia is limited by early exposure to foods. I’m from Newfoundland, so my early diet was comprised of simple and largely unadorned foods; my mother is an excellent cook, so by unadorned I just mean that the traditional East Coast spice palate is not extensive. There’s a recurring joke about our spice racks containing only salt, pepper and ketchup, with barbecue sauce on special occasions. That’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea. Experts say that some tastes are associated with particular words, while some are associated with sounds within the words.

Here’s a tiny sample of what my words taste like, using words from this article. Some of them are close to foods they sound like, and some are, I admit, ridiculously specific:

tiny – apple pie filling
sample – scrambled eggs
like – mayonnaise
exposure – very ripe bananas
kid – ham sandwich with mayonnaise and cheez whiz with the crust cut off
specific – cheezies
sauce – the sweet and sour sauce my Mom puts on meatballs
embarrassment – canned asparagus
old – oatmeal
salt – salt
unabridged – Fudgesicle

Some of my associations aren’t exactly with food. For instance — just like the Wiki article mentions — the word “ink” tastes like pen ink. I’m not sure if that’s a semantic association or because I probably gnawed a pen open as a kid. Dark blue also tastes like ink (however, light blue tastes like a blue Popsicle). Navy tastes like gravy. The chain of associations could go on forever… It would be a great party game (assuming one was at a party full of lexical → gustatory synesthetes). Other words that sound like non-food are graph (tastes like pencil lead) and copper (tastes like a penny).

These associations never change. The article states that new foods are not part of the deal; however, foods often taste like themselves. For instance, “sushi” sets off the simultaneous taste of soy sauce, sticky rice, avocado, tuna sashimi of two kinds, roe, and spicy tuna roll. I know that sounds like a lot of things at once, but I’m so used to this that it doesn’t register as intrusive; often, it doesn’t register at all until I’m asked about it (register tastes like my mother’s potato-beet salad made with mayonnaise, by the way).

It’s a pretty cool thing and, as opposed to some of the other “interesting” mental quirks I’ve learned to live with, I actually feel quite lucky to have experienced it. I’ve never met anyone else who had this, so I guess (guess tastes like Heinz canned spaghetti) you could say it’s a party in my mouth and no one’s invited.