This is the very worst wickedness, that we refuse to acknowledge the passionate evil that is in us. This makes us secret and rotten. —D. H. Lawrence
Have you, a modern person, ever really smelled a rotten egg? Think hard! In all honesty, I can’t say with certainty that I have. Old, sure. Smears of unappealing, desiccated yolk on a carton, yes. But truly rotten? I don’t think so.
And yet, just the other day, I found myself comparing something to the smell of a rotten egg: an Arkansas hot spring, I believe. I know I’ve also used term to describe the repulsive odor of depilatories (whose lack of perfume innovation is one of the great mysteries of twenty-first century technology) and for the sulfurous geysers of Yellowstone, and the medicinal waters you can “take” in Bath’s pump room, and sometimes, yes, farts. We’re told it’s a danger sign; the smell of rotten eggs can indicate a hazardous gas leak or contaminated water. If you were to ask me, I’d think I knew what a rotten egg smells like—but in truth, what I know are the things I’ve always heard likened to it.
Obviously plenty of people have smelled rotten eggs. Anyone on a farm, for starters. Probably anyone who’s worked as a market stockist. But for many of us raised on long-lived, pasteurized, refrigerated supermarket specimens—who would never, as a result, compromise the freshness of precious farmer’s market ova—it’s an anachronism.
But more than that: it is an example of living oral tradition! A tangible connection to our shared rural past! A folkway, even! And that’s just a start; we’re surrounded by these sorts of self-referencing linguistic tics! I mean—wow, right?
If not wow—maybe, oh. Or, maybe, you smell rotten eggs all the time.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.