Both are adjectives;


"Connected with your physical feelings; giving pleasure to your physical senses." (OALD) the origin is from Latin sensulis, from sensus 'faculty of feeling, thought, meaning', from sentire 'feel'.


"Giving pleasure to your senses." (OALD) the origin is from Latin sensus 'sense'+ous.

Here are two examples:

"The sensual feel of a velvet shirt against the skin."(Merriam Webster)

"The sensuous feeling of silk on her skin." (Longman Dictionary)

I wonder if "sensual" and "sensuous" can be interchangeable or there is a subtle difference.

  • I am eagerly waiting for an answer that can at least satisfy my curiosity. Because I know there must be differences and similarities but since I've looked them up in every dictionary, there are examples and even definitions that they are apparently contradictory.
    – haha
    Dec 11, 2015 at 23:10
  • No dictionary or examples will be able to resolve the overlap perfectly. They're very similar words whose slight difference is mostly cultural.
    – Hapaxes
    Dec 12, 2015 at 21:47

1 Answer 1


The terms technically resemble each other, but in my experience, "sensuous" is a less excitable term and refers to information taken in through the senses; whereas "sensual" is more provocative, even suggestive. The latter would be more pleasurable as a rule. Here's a note from my computer dictionary (New Oxford American):

usage: The words sensual and sensuous are frequently used interchangeably to mean ‘gratifying the senses,’ especially in a sexual sense. Strictly speaking, this goes against a traditional distinction, by which sensuous is a more neutral term, meaning ‘relating to the senses rather than the intellect’ ( swimming is a beautiful, sensuous experience), while sensual relates to gratification of the senses, especially sexually ( a sensual massage). In fact, the word sensuous is thought to have been invented by John Milton (1641) in a deliberate attempt to avoid the sexual overtones of sensual. In practice, the connotations are such that it is difficult to use sensuous in Milton's sense. While traditionalists struggle to maintain a distinction, the evidence suggests that the neutral use of sensuous is rare in modern English. If a neutral use is intended, it is advisable to use alternative wording.

Perhaps, "Our day at the spa was exceedingly sensuous" vs "Her whisper in my ear was so sensual I could hardly take a breath."

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