English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Why do we "wear" perfume, and not "apply" it?

For example, why do we say "Alice wore her mother's perfume", and not "Alice applied her mother's perfume"?

What's your take on this?

share|improve this question
She first applied it, then wore it :) – mplungjan Mar 15 '11 at 12:11
I'm confused by this question. As mplungjan implies, "applying" something is the act of putting it on, and "wearing" is the state of having it on. Everything we put on our bodies is "worn". We wear hats, shoes, shirts, makeup, earrings, belts, watches. (The only exception I can think of is a tattoo, which people have — but perhaps that is because it is essentially permanent.) In any case, "applying" in that situation would make no sense at all. It would be like saying "I am starting the car" in the situation where you are driving the car. – Kosmonaut Mar 15 '11 at 15:42
@Kos: Probably because you're a native English speaker and perceive the world differently. :-) In certain languages (OP's is Hindi?), perfume would be considered different from hats watches etc., probably because it's not sth tangible that sits on your body—when you go home, you can't set it aside to be worn again—and thus (the equivalent of) "wearing perfume" would be wrong, odd, or at least poetic. (I don't know if any European or East Asian languages have this distinction…) Of course, what applies to perfume applies to lipstick, eyeliner etc. also (at least English is consistent here). – ShreevatsaR Mar 15 '11 at 18:55
@Kos: BTW, about distinctions felt in English: (1) You felt that tattoos were an exception, but Google has 45000 results for 'wear a tattoo', 27000 for 'wore a tattoo'. (2) Someone below felt that 'dressed in perfume' is odd (or did they? I just assumed so), but there are 1,010,000 results for "dressed in * and perfume". In both cases, something interesting is going on here, since not all native speakers' intuition agree? – ShreevatsaR Mar 15 '11 at 19:03
@Kosmon: Let me restate what I said: in other languages I know, perfume (and lipstick etc.) are definitely not treated the same as clothes, and are not used with the same verb that is used where "wear" is for clothes. The verb that is used for perfume is closest to "apply". This is about how your native language influences semantics. You even say "semantically, the concept of apply (or put on) is the act of putting something onto your body", and this is exactly what is done with perfume, isn't it? And yet in English one tends to use "wear", because the perception of the act is different. – ShreevatsaR Jul 22 '11 at 14:14
up vote 7 down vote accepted

My take (was a comment since I could not find sources):

Since perfume engulfs you, it is worn like a cloak. So you apply some perfume to your wrist or elsewhere on your body, and from then on you wear it.

share|improve this answer
It appears that this is just an idiosyncrasy of English for which a logical explanation can be found. :-) – ShreevatsaR Mar 15 '11 at 15:14
^ can or can't? – n0nChun Mar 15 '11 at 15:53
Can. - - I will remove the word – mplungjan Mar 15 '11 at 17:54
Your comment that remains has a better distinction, in my opinion. The application of perfume would be putting on the perfume. We don't say, "I dressed in my mother's perfume." We say, "put on" or "applied." Once it is there it is no longer being "applied." "I am wearing perfume" doesn't seem to have an appropriate alternative using "apply": I am applying perfume; I have applied perfume. The same terminology seems to work with makeup as well: She is wearing red lipstick. – MrHen Mar 15 '11 at 17:59

The earliest citations of wearing perfume refer to perfume boxes and nosegays--accessories that were physically worn around the neck. I can't find any history of perfume reference that confirms this, but it seems plausible that the use of wearing perfume has its origins here.

share|improve this answer

protected by RegDwigнt Sep 24 '12 at 14:59

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.