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'Odorous,' 'Odious,' 'Malodorous,' and 'Odoriferous'

“Odious” doesn’t specifically mean “smelly,” but could be used to describe something smelly if it were also offensive or repulsive, so be careful when you use "odious" because some people confuse it with “odorous.”

By
Mignon Fogarty ,
April 12, 2018

A woman holding her nose. But is it in reaction to something odorous or odious?

Since we talked about “noisome” and being stinky last week, we’ll continue the thread and talk about multiple words that describe pleasant and unpleasant smells and one word that’s sometimes mistakenly used to describe smells. 

“Odorous,” “malodorous,” and “odoriferous” are all ways of describing a smell, and ultimately all go back to the same Latin root that meant “a smell or a scent."

Odorous

Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary of the English Language from 1818 defines odorous in only positive terms: “fragrant; perfumed, sweet of scent.” One example he included is from Edmund Spenser’s “Sonnet 64,” which compares the scent of a woman to various flowers: “Such fragrant flowers do give most odorous smell.” 

The meaning of words can change though, and today “odorous" can be used to describe good or bad smells, and people seem to use it most often for bad smells. Here’s an example from the Robin Paige mystery “Death at Rottingdean”:

So he took the coin, pocketed his reservations, and hurried off to the White Horse, where The Coffin (as the odorous old coach was known) was about to begin its afternoon run to Brighton. 

“Odorous” also often appears in scientific writing to simply describe something that has a scent. Here’s an example from a physiological psychology textbook:

Very odorous compounds may require less solubility because relatively few molecules need to reach the receptors.

Malodorous

Moving on to “malodorous,” the “mal-“ prefix in “malodorous” means “bad,” just as it does in “malformed,” “maltreated,” and “maladjusted.” Some less obvious words that use the “mal-“ prefix to mean “bad” include “malaise” (bad ease), “malady” (roughly “badness that is had or received”), “malaria” (bad air) and “malevolent” (bad wishing).

By now, you’ve probably guessed that “malodorous” is reserved for bad smells. In general, I’d say malodorous smells are worse that odorous smells.

The malodorous entrails made Squiggly gag.

Odoriferous

Finally, the least common of these three words to describe smells is “odoriferous.” According to a Google Books search, it was actually the most common of the three words in 1800, but it’s been declining ever since.

A Google Ngram chart comparing odorous, malodorous, and odoriferous

Like “odorous,” “odoriferous” originally described a pleasant smell and now can describe good or bad smells and is most often used for bad smells (although “Garner’s Modern English Usage” continues to say it should be reserved for good smells). 

Interestingly, “odoriferous” comes from the same Latin “odor” root combined with the word for “to bear or to carry.” It means “to bear or carry a scent.”

Odious

And now, we have to talk about a word that some people mistakenly use for smells: “odious.” It sounds a lot like “odorous,” but “odious” comes from a Latin word that meant “hatred,” and you use it as an adjective to describe something that is offensive, repulsive, or deserving of hate.

Squiggly found cleaning fish to be an odious task.

The problem is that you can find something smelly to be offensive, repulsive, or deserving of hate. Does Squiggly dislike cleaning fish because it grosses him out in general or because it is smelly? It could be both an odorous and odious task.

My advice is to be careful when using “odious.” Although it wouldn’t be wrong to use it in a sentence where it could mean the task was repulsive because it was smelly or just that a potentially smelly task was repulsive, I wouldn’t use it in such sentences because it probably isn’t the clearest way to explain what you mean.

To me, something like “Reading online comments can be an odious task” is clear, but “Squiggly found cleaning fish to be an odious task” risks confusing some readers who might confuse “odious” with “odorous” because of the context and the similar sound.

Your Quick and Dirty Tip is that “odorous,” “malodorous,” and “odoriferous” all describe things that smell. If you want to describe a bad smell, “malodorous” is probably the safest choice. Also, these all sound like $10 words to me, so consider whether something simpler like “smelly” or “fragrant” might be a better choice. Finally, “odious” doesn’t specifically mean “smelly,” but could be used to describe something smelly if it were offensive or repulsive, so be careful when you use it because some people confuse it with “odorous.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

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