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What's the difference between "harrowing" and "poignant"?

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3 Answers 3

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I would say it's the difference between being being bitten by hundreds of ants (harrowing) and being stung by a scorpion (poignant). Compare the etymology of the two words:

harrow (n.) "agricultural implement, heavy wooden rake," c.1300, haru, from O.E. *hearwa, apparently related to O.N. harfr "harrow," and perhaps connected with O.H.G. herbist "harvest" (see harvest). Also possibly from hergian (see harry).

harrow (v.) especially in harrowing of Hell in Christian theology, from hergian (see harry). In the figurative sense of "to wound the feelings, distress greatly" it is first attested c.1600 in Shakespeare. Related: Harrowed; harrowing.

So "harrowing" carries connotations of being more long-term, part of an ordeal, or how you might feel after being worked over by a rake (or a swarm of ants).

poignant late 14c., "painful to physical or mental feeling," from O.Fr. poignant (13c.), prp. of poindre "to prick, sting," from L. pungere "to prick" (see pungent). Related: Poignance; poignancy.

And "poignant" is sharper, more acute, possibly deeper. It's the feeling of sudden loss or unexpected injury (like a scorpion sting).

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Thank You, Klay!!! I think You really hit the mark here. –  brilliant Dec 1 '10 at 20:19
    
"Poignant" is rarely used in the sense of "painful" nowadays. –  Mechanical snail Jun 6 '12 at 3:10

Odd question as these words are not often synonymous.

Briefly, harrowing means very distressing while poignant means emotionally moving or powerful. Poignancy is not necessarily negative.

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Thank You, PyroTyger. Can You, please, give me an example, in which "poignancy" would be in positive sense. –  brilliant Nov 25 '10 at 13:21
    
I would be happy to, but I think @crypto has done an excellent job! You'll see from his examples that the word seldom has a positive connotation, but is not necessarily negative either. (Its origin is closer to "harrowing" or "painful" but the English meaning has transmuted over time.) –  PyroTyger Nov 29 '10 at 8:42

In a nutshell,

"poignant" could be used in place of "harrowing", to indicate distress. However, the former can be used in several other situations, as illustrated below:

harrowing could mean:

  • causing pain or distress.

It was after a harrowing journey on foot that we reached the belly of the Amazonian rainforest.

poignant could mean:

  • incisive

The journalist's poignant queries left the senator lost for words.

  • apt; to the point

His poignant summary of the poem garnered a huge round of applause.

  • emotionally moving; sometimes to the point of distress.

The poignant tale of the girl's suffering moved many to tears.

  • pleasurably stimulating

The sight of his childhood sweetheart brought back poignant memories.

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