What does this word go with?
You might well say dark. Or basement, room, cold, air, or smell. These are all commonly seen with dank. But for me, first of all, dank means vacation.
It’s not that I like to vacation in dank places. I don’t really fancy dankness any more than the average person: that cool moisture clinging to the walls and to your skin as you walk into it, and the slightly rank stink of mould or mildew or what have you. When we found it was a fixed characteristic of our hotel room in Cuba last fall, we were not overwhelmingly charmed by it, but we survived. Better that than cigarette smoke, anyway.
But the thing is, I grew up in Alberta. Alberta is not a place for dankness. It is a dry and dusty place. Even the basements smell just of cement dust. My childhood vacations were to places like Vancouver and western New York, places where things got dank. If we explored a basement, it had that unmistakeable smell: the smell that meant I wasn’t in Alberta anymore, I was somewhere humid and old, somewhere where even buildings put down roots and drank water from the soil.
So dank has a pleasant tinge for me, similar to how the smell of French farmhouse cheese does. That soft, ripe cheese, which is really a crusty glob of spoiled milk, smells rather like Charmin in its least charming state. It smells more like the back end than the business end of a cow. And yet that smell is a harbinger or index of an enjoyable experience. So too, for me, the dank smell.
Notice how I speak of it as a smell. This is how many of us tend to think of it now. Why not? Many dank things do have that rank reek, the stink of damp. And the word has such nose-holding echoes with that unthanking ank. But the word originally referred to wetness or humidity, to soaking ground as in fens and marshes, and even simply to rain, clouds, wetness.
But not everyone likes the moist. Not everyone likes the sharp, pungent, clinging, pervasive pong that is the life partner of dankness. Most people will not say to it “vielen dank” – German for ‘many thanks’ (a cheap pun, given that it’s said like “feelin donk,” but so what). Damp can be OK; dank cannot.
But if you’re from someplace dry, at least it will tell you you are not at home. You are somewhere the air actually has aroma. And, what’s best, you’re not the one who’s going to have to worry about the effects of all the moisture in that basement.
Vielen dank to Laurie Miller for suggesting today’s word.