Even if you didn’t know the meaning of the word pungent, you might have an idea that it describes something strong, powerful, and possibly unpleasant.
Oxford English Dictionary: Having a sharply strong taste or smell.
Why is it that the word seems to match its definition so well (for me anyway, this can be subjective, and the word might have strong associations for you)? It’s what is known as an ideophone, a word which evokes a certain idea, generally strongly associated with the meaning of the word. With a word like pungent, it’s simply due to the sound of the word. The vowel sound /ʌ/ has a soft, lazy sound, and the consonant /ʤ/ sound of the g is soft and squishy, and the two of them together compound each other and create a sense of powerful smelliness.
Similar words are:
What’s interesting is the way we can have an association between a sound and an image. Think of the idea of sparkling: it’s entirely visual, so why does the sound of the word sparkle evoke such an image? I think it’s because, like twinkle, the word has a high tone to it, which replicates the sense of lightness inherent in the image of sparkling.
With some ideophones, the connection is clearer. Take tick-tock. We associate that automatically with the idea of the passage of time, largely because we know that’s the sound a clock makes, so when we hear tick-tock we immediately imagine a clock and the concept of time passing associated with it.
And of course, tick-tock is onomatopoeiac. Onomatopoeiac words are a subset of ideophones, and are words that sound like what they represent. Tick-tock is of course the sound a clock makes. Other examples of onomatopoeia include:
And of course, many words for animal sounds, which usually replicate the sound the animal makes like bark, or meow.
Words can get their meaning in many complex ways, but sometimes the most effective way is bypass conscious thought and go directly to our unconscious mind through evocative sounds.