The Grammarphobia Blog

Is “sensual” sexier than “sensuous”?

Q: I don’t know if the distinction between “sensuous” and “sensual” is still alive, but I see it as a sort of thought control. It’s hard to even articulate without leaning on suspect concepts like baser vs. higher nature. I’d welcome your thoughts, and any other sources you might refer me to.

A: In a sense (if you’ll pardon the expression), you’re right about this. The word “sensuous” owes its existence to prudery.

The poet John Milton invented “sensuous” because he apparently felt that the existing word, “sensual,” was getting too sexy for his purposes.

“Sensuous” first appeared in writing, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, in Milton’s essay Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England (1641).

In the relevant passage, Milton contrasts the “Soule” with “her visible, and sensuous collegue the body.”

He used the word again in a 1644 essay on education. This quotation comes from a passage in which he discusses practical arts like logic and rhetoric:

“To which Poetry would be made subsequent, or indeed rather precedent, as being lesse suttle and fine, but more simple, sensuous, and passionate.”

It seems the author of Paradise Lost regarded “sensual” as inappropriate for exalted writing and needed something a bit drier.

But “sensual” didn’t always have a juicy reputation. 

It entered English around 1450, adapted from the late Latin adjective sensualis. The ultimate source is the noun sensus, which the OED defines as meaning “perception, feeling, faculty of perception, meaning.”

With that etymology, it’s not surprising that “sensual” originally meant “of or pertaining to the senses or physical sensation; sensory,” according to the OED.

But it soon took on other, sometimes pejorative meanings, like base or lewd or unchaste.

It began appearing in phrases like “sensuall appetite” (1477), “sensuall luste” (before 1513), “the foule yoke of sensuall bondage” (before 1541), “sensual excesses” (1742), and so on.

And as an adjective applied to people, says the OED, “sensual” came to mean voluptuous, sexually passionate, or otherwise “absorbed in the life of the senses,” even to excess.

So the word’s original meaning was almost swamped in these new—and, in the view of some, depraved—usages.

We can understand why Milton might feel the need for a new word to supply the lost innocence of the old one.

When “sensuous” was introduced, the OED says, its meaning was “of or pertaining to the senses; derived from, perceived by, or affecting the senses; concerned with sensation or sense-perception.”

Milton’s new word took a while to catch on, however. “Sensuous” wasn’t seen again until 1814, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge took it up.

Coleridge wrote in an essay: “Thus, to express in one word what belongs to the senses, or the recipient and more passive faculty of the soul, I have reintroduced the word sensuous, used … by Milton.”

But an element of sensory enjoyment has crept into “sensuous,” too.

As the OED says, “sensuous” pleasure is pleasure “received through the senses,” a notion “implying a luxurious yielding up of oneself to passive enjoyment.”

As an example, the OED cites a line from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret (which Stewart happens to be reading at the moment).

Here’s the citation: “There is in the first taste of rustic life a kind of sensuous rapture scarcely to be described.”

So how are “sensual” and “sensuous” treated today? If properly used, they apply to different kinds of pleasures.

For the past 100 years or so, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, language commentators have maintained that “sensuous emphasizes aesthetic pleasure while sensual emphasizes gratification or indulgence of the physical appetites.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) puts it this way: “Sensuous usually applies to the senses involved in esthetic enjoyment, as of art or music. … Sensual more often applies to the physical senses or appetites, particularly those associated with sexual pleasure.”

The problem, of course, is that this can be a fine line.

As the editors of M-W point out, “The distinction is true enough within one range of meanings, and it is worth remembering. The difficulty is that both words have more than one sense, and they tend often to occur in contexts where the distinction between them is not as clear-cut as the commentators would like it to be.”

Check out our books about the English language