Is there any difference between smell like and smell of?

I came across this sentence in the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary:

My hands smell like (US) / of (UK) onion.

But I'm not really sure about it because in the Longman Advanced American Dictionary, I came across smell of.

Does the usage have anything to do with whether the smell is of a real thing or something similar?

Like when you say "My hands smell of onion", it means that you have touched an onion and that's why your hands smell, and when you say "The food smells like rotten meat" it means that the smell of the food is similar to that of rotten meat, though there might be no meat in it?

  • 1
    Have you checked the meanings of the prepositions of and like ?
    – Kris
    Jan 1, 2015 at 12:15
  • 3
    @Kris I have. It took me hours, and I'm still convinced I haven't got the complete picture. Jan 1, 2015 at 15:58
  • Please include your findings in the body of the question. (Not the search for smell but for of & like instead.)
    – Kris
    Jan 2, 2015 at 7:41

5 Answers 5


Your final paragraph precisely states common usage here, at the bottom of the world & at the edge of the empire, in New Zealand. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the 'Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary' on its home turf, but, here, the distinction they make is incorrect.
Either term might be used, depending on context.

You said

"...when you say "My hands smell of onion", it means that you have touched an onion and that's why your hands smell,
and when you say "The food smells like rotten meat" it means that the smell of the food is similar to that of rotten meat, though there might be no meat in it?!

That is the common usage here. ie:

"Smell of ..." means that they have some of the material on them so that "smelling your hands" returns the smell of the attached material.

"Smell like ..." means that the smell is reminiscent of the smell of the cited material, even though none is present.


It would be possible, and generally felt to be valid, to say " ... smells like ..." when the smell was caused by the material mentioned but you were unaware of what caused the smell.

eg saying "My cup smells like liniment" when the cup had, unbeknown to you, previously been used to contain liniment, would be valid (As xxx usually DOES smell LIKE xxx).

Advanced Pedantry:

However, the converse - "This cup smells of Aniseed" when it contained Ouzo liquor, which has an Aniseed like smell, would be incorrect usage, based on a misapprehension by the smeller. This distinction would be understood by many but few would be pedantic enough to care if such a mistake was made.
eg "This cup smells of Aniseed"
might be replied to with "'It's Ouzo", without the felt need (usually) to explain that it can't smell of it because "it ain't it".


It's evident from various added comments (Oldbag, Steve Jessop and others) that

  • US usage tends to be "smells like xxx" regardless of whether it is actually xxx being smelt or something that is known not to be xxx but has the same or a similar smell, Whereas ...

  • UK (and New Zealand) usage is to differentiate between 'actually xxx' and 'similar characteristics to those of xxx'.

So, the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary appears to be correct in its [US] assertion but not general enough in its [UK] assertion.

However, Sharaman says that "Longman Advanced American Dictionary"mentions "smell of" but Oldbag's answer and Steve Jessop's related comment indicate that "smell of" is not common US usage.

Sharaman asks if "taste" follows the same "rules" as "smell".

In NZ "taste" follows the same 'rules' as "smell".

This would tend to apply to a number of sense or perception based terms although the usage becomes "forced" in some cases.
eg "made of wood" would be used but "made like wood" would feel too 'strained' and would probably be rendered "made to look like wood" or "made to seem like wood" or even "made to seem like it was made of wood." [I decided that, in this example, the use of wood would make the example (just slightly) more entertaining and thus, just possibly, more memorable, with the added benefit of also making it more confusing :-)].

Tongue twister from my youth:

"How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?"

This was always a deep mystery to me as, in New Zealand, we do not have Marmota monax, groundhogs, woodchucks, whistle-pigs, land-beavers, nor any members of the Sciuridae family, nor ground squirrels or marmots or in fact native rodents of any sort.

  • That sounds right to this American ear.
    – tchrist
    Jan 1, 2015 at 14:58
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    (At least one type of) Ouzo does actually contain aniseed, so the cup would smell of aniseed in that case. (I wouldn't normally point this out, but it is in a section labelled "Advanced Pedantry", so I feel an obligation ;) )
    – psmears
    Jan 1, 2015 at 18:55
  • True from my (UK) perspective. Using another simple example you could say something like "You smell of beer" or "You smell like a brewery" but "You smell of a brewery" would sound incorrect to most ears.
    – Michael
    Jan 2, 2015 at 12:52
  • Now this is pedantry properly employed, both nominally and effectively. Jan 2, 2015 at 13:55
  • 1
    @Sharaman yes - "taste" follows the same "rules" - at least in NZ. This would tend to apply to a number of sense or perception based terms although the usage becomes "forced" in some cases. eg "made of" would be used but "made like" would be rendered "made to look like" or "made to seem like" or even "made to seem like it was made of ..." Jan 3, 2015 at 23:24

Like when you say "My hands smell of onion", it means that you have touched an onion and that's why your hands smell, and when you say "The food smells like rotten meat" it means that the smell of the food is similar to that of rotten meat, though there might be no meat in it?

My interpretation is that smell of implies causality. You have touched something, and therefore your hands "smell of it": they smell because of it.

Of course, when something causes a smell, that smell is typically similar to the smell of the thing itself. If you touch onions, your hands smell like onions, of course (because, I assume, some chemical from the onion rubs off on your hand).

The distinction is more clear in metaphor. You can "smell of" failure, or of desperation, or of fear. Those things can cause you to literally smell (because of sweat or hygiene issues), or they can just make you an object of distaste, as if you smelled bad, but no one believes that abstract concepts like "desperation" have an odor to resemble.

Smell like is much more literal. One thing smells like another thing, because of happenstance, chemistry, or some other reason.

  • Maybe this sentence can make the question clearer: His feet smell ____ shit. Which preposition do you think is better, like or of? I believe it's 'like'. What do you think and why? Thanks Jan 1, 2015 at 10:46
  • 8
    If the person has trod in excrement, and his feet are therefore odoriferous, they smell of shit; if he has merely neglected to keep them properly cleaned to the point that their odor resembles that of fecal matter (in quality or in intensity), then they smell like shit. Jan 1, 2015 at 10:49

In the US, you'd rarely hear anyone say that something smelled "of" anything. Right or wrong, (or inaccurate) we say, "like."

  • Hence "Kurt smells like Teen Spirit", which in the UK would have been "Kurt smells of Teen Spirit" if the reason was he had Teen Spirit on him, and "like" only if there was some doubt as to whether he really had that deodorant on him, or a different but similar-smelling one :-) Jan 1, 2015 at 16:24
  • @SteveJessop (and Oldbag) - so Oldbag agrees with CALD for the US only case, and Steve says (I think) that the terms are differentiated in the US as noted in my answer and by others. ie it's a case of "... like ..." [US] versus "like" or "of" [non US]. Jan 3, 2015 at 23:20
  • In my experience, Eastern US with parents from the Appalachians, the phrase "smells of" is used in the same sense as the UK mentioned above, but this may be relegated to moments of poetic expression and not the merely mundane. For instance, in recalling impressions of the old homestead, my Mom would certainly have used the expression "smelled of" in describing their old family store, because the store actually did have all those things in it throughout its life serving the family -- cabbage, corn, etc.
    – Tim Ward
    Jan 8, 2016 at 19:16

I disagree that smell like / smell of is a transatlantic divide. Though Americans might be less inclined to use smell of, the primary consideration is that smell of is more specific in its applicability.

For example, organic compounds developed in the aging process of a wine may impart a strawberry-like aroma, even though grapes were the only ingredient. In that case, it would be acceptable to say

This wine smells like strawberry.

However, it would be highly questionable to say

This wine smells of strawberry.

since there are no real strawberries involved.

The same distinction would apply for synthetic flavours.


My grammatical opinion (as an American who lives in Europe) is this:

If I have chopped up an onion, and I want to convey to someone that I can still smell the residue of onion on my fingers, I would say:

"My fingers still have the fragrance (or "odor" -- depending on whether or not you find the scent of onions appealing or off-putting) of onions!!"

In this sentence, I would use "of".

However -- I would also say, in a similar context:

"Even though I have washed my hands several times, they still smell like the onions I chopped earlier."

I feel as though the usage of "of" and "like" are almost interchangeable, and the intent of the statement is the determining factor.

For instance:

If Evan and Emma went to a bar, and Evan was drinking but I know that he doesn't smoke, I would tell Evan that his breath smelled of alcohol and his clothes smelled like Cigarette smoke.

However, if Emma was the designated driver and I knew she wasn't drinking or smoking, I would would say:

"you definitely smell like you've been in a bar!"

instead of saying:

"you smell of a bar!"

In actuality, Emma was engaged in the action of hanging out at a bar, without participating in drinking or smoking, yet she smelled as though she had partaken in both.

I am not entirely sure which phrase is grammatically correct, simply because the acceptance of lazy speech is becoming more and more popular due to social media. My opinion is formed based on location, colloquialisms and vernacular.

...annnnnd...on that note...I am convinced that the importance of grammar and syntax is becoming extinct.

  • 1
    Please add a source to support your answer, answers based solely on personal experience are less authoritative than those backed by proper sources.
    – JJJ
    May 15, 2018 at 13:51
  • The arguments in your answer seem to have already been presented in the accepted answer. Can you please explain what new element your answer presents?
    – Lawrence
    May 15, 2018 at 13:57

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