Which Is Correct Scent Or Smell?

Scent and smell refer to the same sense – the detection of odors or fragrances through the nose. Both words can be used to describe odors that are perceived by the olfactory system. In this article, we will explore the meanings and usage of the words “scent” and “smell.” We will look at their origins, how they are used in psychology and science, their connotations, and recommendations for when to use each word.

Definition of Scent

Scent is defined as a distinctive odor, especially one that is pleasant or agreeable. The word scent often refers to perfumes or pleasant natural smells like flowers or spices.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, scent refers to “fragrance, perfume, scent, redolence – a sweet or pleasant odor. Fragrance suggests the odors of flowers or other growing things.”

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines scent as “to fill an area or place with a smell, esp. a pleasant smell: Perfume scented the air.”

Scent can refer to manufactured perfumes and fragrances as well as natural pleasant smells like flowers, fruits, spices, etc. It evokes the sense of smell and is often considered an agreeable or appealing odor.

Definition of Smell

Smell is the sense of odors or scents through our olfactory system, which is part of our nose. Specifically, odor molecules bind to receptors in the olfactory epithelium inside the nasal cavity. This sends signals to the olfactory bulb in the brain, allowing us to perceive different smells (Merriam-Webster, Cambridge Dictionary). The olfactory system allows humans to detect thousands of different odors. Smell also plays an important role in our ability to taste food.

The verb “to smell” means to actively use our sense of smell to perceive or detect an odor or scent (Dictionary.com). For example, “I can smell something sweet baking in the oven.” Smell is one of the five basic human senses, along with sight, hearing, taste, and touch.


In general, “scent” tends to refer to pleasant smells, while “smell” is more neutral and can refer to good or bad odors.[1] For example, one might talk about the lovely “scent” of flowers or perfume. On the other hand, “smell” is more appropriate for odors that are not necessarily pleasant, like garbage.[2]

“Scent” evokes a sense of sweetness and pleasantness that “smell” does not. When describing a particularly nice fragrance, “scent” flows off the tongue in a more positive way. “Smell” is the more generic, umbrella term for odors of all kinds.

So in summary, opt for “scent” when referring to aromas that are sweet, fragrant, and pleasant. Use “smell” for general references to odors that may be good or bad.


The words “scent” and “smell” have different origins and evolutions. According to Etymonline, “scent” comes from the 1300s Anglo-French “odour,” from Old French “odor” meaning “smell, perfume, fragrance.” It traces back to the Latin “sentire” meaning “to feel, perceive.”

Etymonline states “smell” originated before 1200, from the Old English “smeilian” meaning “perceive or detect the odor or scent.” It is related to Old High German “smeckon” and Old English “smeccan” meaning “to taste, savor.” The Indo-European root is “smei-” meaning “to smile, laugh.”

So “scent” evolved from French words for smell and perfume, while “smell” came from Old English words related to perceiving odors. “Scent” seems more associated with pleasant fragrances, while “smell” has a more general meaning of detecting any odor.


The sense of smell is closely linked with memory and emotion, more so than our other senses. This is because the olfactory bulb in the brain has direct connections to two important areas – the amygdala and hippocampus (The Psychology of Scent: How Fragrances Can Affect Our Mood and Behavior).

The amygdala processes emotional reactions and emotional memory. This is why certain scents can trigger strong emotional responses or bring back emotional memories (Psychology and Smell).

The hippocampus deals with memory formation. Scents get directly encoded as memories within the hippocampus, allowing smell-associated memories to persist strongly over time (Scent). This phenomenon is known as the Proust effect, based on how scents triggered strong memories for the French writer Marcel Proust.

Overall, because scent information gets processed directly in the emotional and memory areas of the brain, scents tend to evoke memories and emotions more strongly than other senses like vision or hearing.


Both “scent” and “smell” can be used to describe odors, but they have slightly different connotations:

“Scent” often refers to pleasant or sweet smells, especially in the context of perfumes, aromas, or fragrances. For example: “The scent of fresh flowers filled the room.” It evokes a sense of allure or enticement.

“Smell” is the more general and neutral term used for any odor, pleasant or unpleasant. For example: “I noticed a strange smell coming from the kitchen.” It does not carry the same positive connotations as “scent.”

“Smell” is more commonly used in everyday speech and informal writing. “Scent” is more likely to be used in formal or literary contexts.

Some specific cases where “scent” is preferred:
– Describing perfumes or fragrances (“her perfume had a lovely floral scent”)
– Hunting dogs that use scent to track (“the hounds followed the fox’s scent”)
– Metaphorical and poetic uses (“the sweet scent of nostalgia”)

Should You Say “Scent” or “Smell” in English?
What is the difference between “scent” and “odor”?

Style Guide Recommendations

a person smelling a flower, showing the sense of smell in action

There is some debate around when to use “scent” versus “smell” in writing. Here are some guidelines from style manuals:

  • “Scent” tends to refer to pleasant or sweet smells, especially in relation to cosmetics and perfumes. For example, “Her perfume had a floral scent.”
  • “Smell” is often used for unpleasant odors or when referring to the sense of smell itself. For example, “There was a strange smell coming from the kitchen.”
  • The Associated Press Stylebook recommends using “scent” only when referring to perfumes or fragrances designed to smell pleasant. For other odors, “smell” is preferred.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style does not make a distinction, considering “scent” and “smell” interchangeable in most cases.
  • Some writers prefer “scent” in more poetic or literary writing, reserving “smell” for technical/scientific contexts.

The main point is to use your best judgment based on connotations – “scent” evokes pleasantness, while “smell” can go either way. Stick to one word consistently when possible to avoid jarring the reader.


In summary, the main differences between “scent” and “smell” are:

  • “Scent” tends to refer to a pleasant odor, while “smell” can refer to pleasant or unpleasant odors.
  • “Scent” is commonly used in formal contexts like perfume ads, while “smell” is more common in everyday speech.
  • “Scent” implies a subtler or lighter odor, whereas “smell” can refer to strong or pungent odors.
  • “Scent” is typically used as a noun, while “smell” can be used as either a noun or a verb.

In general:

  • Use “scent” when referring to a pleasant or appealing odor, especially in formal contexts.
  • Use “smell” for general references to odors or when using as a verb (e.g. “something smells”).
  • Consider context and connotations – “scent” evokes pleasantness, while “smell” is neutral.

The right choice depends on your specific usage and the impressions you want to convey.


Sources used in research for this article include but are not limited to:

  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  • Oxford English Dictionary
  • The Chicago Manual of Style
  • American Psychological Association
  • Linguistics and cognitive science research on olfactory perception and language

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