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Proper usage guidelines and examples are appreciated.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Odor has a few meanings that scent doesn't:

  • a characteristic, strong quality
  • esteem or reputation

Conversely, scent has a few meanings that are not covered by odor:

  • the sense of smell, or figuratively the power of detection
  • a trace left by an animal, or figuratively any trail that can be followed

Also, scent works as a verb, while odor doesn't.

For further details and examples, see:

For finding more sample sentences, I refer you to these resources.

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interesting, hadn't heard odor meaning those two things –  Claudiu Oct 14 '10 at 20:19
4  
Also, at least in my world, a scent is more likely to be pleasant than an odor. –  Marthaª Nov 10 '10 at 15:04

The Merriam-Webster entry for "odor" contains:

  • a. a quality of something that stimulates the olfactory organ :
    scent

  • b. a sensation resulting from adequate stimulation of the olfactory organ : smell

According to that definition, an odor can be a scent or a smell.

The dictionary then gives two examples for "odor":

  1. The cheese has a strong odor.

  2. This deodorant prevents bad odor from occurring.

The entry for "scent" has the following examples:

  1. The flower has a wonderful scent.
  2. The dogs followed the fox's scent.
  3. The prisoner escaped because the dogs lost his scent.

Based on the definition of "odor" and on the examples, while "scent" is always associated with a living being that produces the smell, "odor" can also be associated with other smells (e.g. as the ones produced by cheese and that the deodorant prevents in the examples above).


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"Scent" can be positive -- there's the scent of a skunk, but there's also the scent of a pretty girl's hair, the scent of jasmine or of honey, the scent of your favorite spice -- but "odor" is neutral-to-negative. Try telling a woman that she exudes an interesting odor; let me know how that works out.

Metaphorically, "odor" means "characteristic" or "reputation". They used to say "odor of sanctity" but in keeping with the generally negative connotation of the word, that phrase has disappeared, while "odor of corruption" remains.

"Scent" as a metaphor has the association of a tracking dog. There's the "scent of mystery", the "scent of a bargain". Someone who wants attention is "giving off a scent" and someone who is in the process of solving a puzzle is "on the scent".

I remember getting off the plane in my favorite Asian country, having brought my wife to visit for the first time. I took a lungful of air -- a familiar, missed mix of cilantro and lemongrass and palm tree. It had been many years and I was happy, moved, to be back. My wife wrinkled her nose. "Smells funny here."

That's the difference between "scent" and "odor".

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Scent is very often used as a synonym for perfume or fragrance in the U.S. Your answer was excellent, I thought! –  Feral Oink Dec 19 '11 at 22:58
    
In the US? I admit I've only lived in the US for about 40 years, but I've never heard that. The British call (or used to call) perfume and aftershave and such "scent", but I've never heard Americans do that. –  Malvolio Dec 20 '11 at 3:52
    
Go to any major department store in the continental U.S. What is the name of the department where perfume-like stuff is sold for women? It is often "Scent and Fragrances", or maybe just "Fine Fragrance" Department, and the products sold in that department are "scent". That's because there are lots of distinctions: In order of price/ quality (ascending): eau de Cologne, eau de toilette and then parfum or perfume. Can't refer to all of it collectively as perfume, would be deceptive. –  Feral Oink Dec 20 '11 at 21:06

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