Every moment of every day, our senses sift input from our surroundings. Most of us assume the primacy of sight, organizing ourselves in our environment by what our eyes tell us. We tend to think of touch and taste as requiring contact. But sounds land on our ears, and scents wandering through the air enter our noses, and they fill out the dimensions around us… and at times it is almost as if we can touch and taste them.

The smell of fresh baking reaches you and you float on the scent towards its origin. You step into the fresh air after a rain and can taste the petrichor and greenery sprouting on your tongue. I remember once, sitting in a library while people nearby were having a whispered conversation, I lifted my hands lightly to let the soft ripples of their sound run over my fingertips. Ahhhh. Such is sufting: after the soft sifting of sensations, a sigh and a shiver and another sip or small extension to taste or feel what the free air carries.

This is not true synaesthesia. A person with synaesthesia might literally feel cold metal while tasting mint, or literally see lightning bolts when a phone rings – two examples attested from real life (and do remember that synaesthetic effects are different for each person with synaesthesia). When you suft, related senses yearn for the input, but there is no true illusion. Most of what we taste really comes from the sense of smell already – which is why things are so insipid when you have sinusitis – so “tasting” a wafting scent is just allowing some of the smell to pass through the mouth on the way to the olfactory glands. Sound is vibrations carried on airwaves and sensed physically by a membrane in the ear; strong sounds can be felt in our bodies, so it is not outlandish to respond to lighter sounds as though reaching for a touch. But we know what way we’re really experiencing the sound or smell; we’re just letting our longing for the source create a little short-circuit.

It’s a perfect little word for what it names, isn’t it? SuftingSuft. It shifts softly in the mouth from tongue tip to teeth and lips and back again. It’s like a fingertip passing lightly through your hair to touch your cheek. It traces to the Proto-Germanic verb *suf– ‘sip’ and Old Dutch *suft ‘sigh, sip’. It also brings to mind Proto-Germanic *suhtiz ‘sickness’ because of its development into senses of ‘longing, desire, yearning’ in such modern forms as Dutch zucht and German Sucht, but those are rather less pleasant in tone than this reverie of the senses.

So now, when you smile lightly and taste the air as you pass a candy store or walk through the forest, and when you seek pleasant sounds to run over the fine hairs on your arms, you know what to call it. Take my word for it. Sufting is my word – it’s my new old word for this week, freshly confected for you in my lexical kitchen.

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