The Grammarphobia Blog

Aromatherapy?

Q: My boyfriend and I have a quick question. I referred to a strong animal scent as being poignant. One of the definitions of “poignant” in the dictionary is pungently pervasive. But he thinks that describing a scent as poignant is not correct. What do you think?

A: One of the definitions of “poignant,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is sharp, pungent, piquant to the taste or smell. But the OED says this meaning is now rare.

I believe that most people these days think of “poignant” as keenly moving or affecting. You might be understood in a roomful of lexicographers if you use “poignant” to mean pungent, but the rest of the world would respond with “Huh?”

I’d rather be understood than technically correct. It would be better, I think, to use “pungent” to describe a strong smell.

The word “poignant,” which goes back to the 14th century, comes to us from the Latin pungere, meaning to pierce or prick. The two earliest OED references are in The Canterbury Tales.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.