The odour of agarwood is complex and pleasing, with few or no similar natural analogues. As a result, agarwood and its essential oil gained great cultural and religious significance in ancient civilizations around the world. In as early as the 3rd century, the chronicle Nan zhou yi wu zhi (Strange things from the South) written by Wa Zhen of the Eastern Wu Dynasty mentioned agarwood produced in the Rinan commandery, now Central Vietnam, and how people collected it in the mountains.
Agarwood is known under many names in different cultures:
* It is known as Chén-xīang (沉香) in Chinese and Jin-koh (沈香) in Japanese, both meaning "sinking incense" and alluding to its high density.
* Both agarwood and its resin distillate/extracts are known as Oud (عود) in Arabic (literally wood) and used to describe agarwood in nations and areas of Islamic faith. Western perfumers may also use agarwood essential oil under the name "oud" or "oude".
* In Europe it was referred to as Lignum aquila (eagle-wood) or Agilawood, because of the similarity in sound of agila to gaharu
* Another name is Lignum aloes or Aloeswood. This is potentially confusing, since a genus Aloe exists (unrelated), which has medicinal uses, . However, the Aloes of the Old Testament (Num. 24:6; Ps. 45:8; Prov. 7:17; and Cant. 4:14) and of the Hebrew Bible (ahalim in Hebrew) are believed to be agarwood from Aquilaria malaccensis.
* In Tibetan it is known as a-ga-ru. There are several varieties used in Tibetan Medicine: unique eaglewood: ar-ba-zhig; yellow eaglewood: a-ga-ru ser-po, white eaglewood: ar-skya, and black eaglewood: ar-nag.
* In Assamese it is called as "ogoru".
* The Indonesian and Malay name is "gaharu".
* In New Guinea it is called "ghara".
* In Vietnamese, it is known as "trầm hương", a direct borrowing of Chinese 沉香.
* In Hindi (India), it is known as "agar", which is originally Sanskrit based.
* In Thai language it is known as "Mai Kritsana" (ไม้กฤษณา).
* In Laos it is known as "Mai Ketsana".