The Grammarphobia Blog

Short and smelly

Q: I’ve heard that “odiferous” is not a real word, but a mispronunciation or incorrect contraction of “odoriferous.” Yet I’ve never heard anyone use “odoriferous.” I’m of the mind that common usage rules the day here, but I’d feel better if “odiferous” had the Grammarphobia stamp of approval.

A: “Odiferous” is indeed a contracted form of “odoriferous.” Whether it’s legitimate or not depends on which reference book you consult.

Garner’s Modern American Usage describes “odiferous” as an “erroneous shortening,” and the word doesn’t appear at all in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), just “odoriferous.”

However, “odiferous” shows up in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) as an adjective formed by contraction from the original.

“Odiferous” also appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, described as a shortened form of “odoriferous.”

The shortened form dates back to about 1500 and there are citations throughout the following centuries. The original word, “odoriferous,” isn’t much older than that, since it first appeared in print circa 1487.

My guess is that the five-syllable “odoriferous” has always been a mouthful, so it sometimes lost a syllable.

Although “odoriferous” now means having an odor, especially a strong or unpleasant one, it didn’t originally suggest being stinky. At first, according to the OED, it described something with “a pleasant scent; sweet-smelling; fragrant.”

A case could be made for using “odiferous,” but I wouldn’t use it. If you’d like to dodge the “correctness” angle when you smell something with a strong or questionable odor, you could always fall back on “odorous” or “malodorous.”

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