Have you ever been reading a book and stumbled upon a sentence like this?
“Her nose was filled with the sweet perfume of the orange trees.”
Huh? The “perfume” of the orange trees?
Or, perhaps, consider another line like this:
“She breathed deeply of the divine scent of the orange blossoms.”
Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “I’m going to apply some scent.”
Or, “I’m going to spritz on a bit of perfume.”
So, which is it? “Scent”? “Perfume”? What is the difference between these words? Does “scent” mean the same thing as “perfume”, or something entirely different?
The difference between “scent” and “perfume” is slim. “Perfume” as we know it refers to a blend of essential oils, fragrance molecules, and alcohol or oil which produces a pleasing smell. “Scent” refers to any smell, good or bad.
Let’s dive a little bit deeper.
What do we mean when we say “perfume”?
As I mentioned before, “perfume” in common parlance refers to a mixture of alcohol or carrier oil, essential oils, and fragrance molecules which is bottled up in a pretty package and applied with an atomizer, roller ball, or dipstick.
According to the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary, “perfume” is defined as, “a scent of something sweet-smelling” or “a substance that emits a pleasant odor; especially: a fluid preparation of natural essences (as from plants or animals) or synthetics and a fixative used for scenting.”
In most cases, when someone uses the word “perfume”, they are usually referring to the second definition provided by the dictionary, that is “a substance that emits a pleasant odor”, rather than the first.
Most people will understand that if you say “perfume”, you are talking about a specific product, just like when someone says the word “orange”, as in “I’m eating an orange”, it is generally understood that they are referring to the fruit, rather than the color or the Dutch Royal House of Orange.
However, the word “perfume” is used according to the first definition as well, especially in poetry or other literary works. Take this line from Hamlet:
“A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute.
In this case, Hamlet is of course talking about the natural smell of violets, rather than some random violet perfume.
It’s similar to the way that we use the word “fragrance”. “Fragrance” might refer to a perfume, like, “She’s wearing a beautiful fragrance today,” or to any pleasant smell, as in, “She smelled the pleasant fragrance of roasting chicken with rosemary emanating from the oven.”
We could, in fact, replace “fragrance” in both of those sentences with “perfume” and get the same result. For example, “She’s wearing a beautiful perfume today,” or, “She smelled the pleasant perfume of roasting chicken with rosemary emanating from the oven.”
So “perfume” is either a product in a bottle which we use to make ourselves smell good, or any pleasant or sweet-smelling odor, usually produced by flowers or certain foods.
What about “scent”?
What do we mean when we say “scent”?
“Scent” is very close in meaning to “perfume” and “fragrance”, and for that reason they can be used almost interchangeably.
However, there is a slight difference.
“Scent” refers to any smell, pleasant or unpleasant.
As per the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary, “scent” is, “effluvia from a substance that affect the sense of smell: such as a: an odor left by an animal on a surface passed over b: a characteristic or particular odor; especially: one that is agreeable”.
Although the dictionary emphasizes that “scent” usually means an “agreeable” smell, that is not necessarily the case in every instance.
Though it is true that we might use “stench”, “stink”, or “reek” instead of “scent” when talking about particularly foul smells, it is possible nevertheless to use the word.
For example, “The eye-watering scent of rancid cheese,” or “The rank scent of spoiled milk,” or “The putrescent scent of rotting garbage”.
Nobody, I’d wager, would ever go so far as to describe those as agreeable scents.
But by the same token, “scent” can easily describe a pleasant smell, like “The sensual scent of jasmine,” or “The delicate scent of steeping tea”.
So, “scent” can readily refer to aromas both pleasant and unpleasant.
Can we use “scent” and “perfume” interchangeably?
Yes, “scent” and “perfume” can be used more or less interchangeably, but you should consider the context.
“Scent” can describe both good and bad smells, and therefore it can reasonably substitute for “perfume” in a sentence.
For instance, “The sweet perfume of the oleanders,” could be easily changed to “The sweet scent of the oleanders,” with no loss of meaning.
And in most cases, it can go the other way. In, “The tantalizing scent of mushrooms sauteed in wine,” there would be no issue in switching “scent” out for “perfume”.
But if you were to write a sentence about burning flesh, for instance, you might run into some problems.
Take, for example, this sentence: “He smelled the acrid scent of rotten eggs.”
It would, of course, be possible to write this as, “He smelled the acrid perfume of rotten eggs.”
However, given that perfume denotes a smell that is pleasing, a writer might deliberately use “perfume” to describe a smell that is not pleasing in order to make a point, for comic effect, or to express irony.
For example: “The fragrant dish of pasta slathered in garlic, onions, and cheese I ate for dinner made every pore of my body give off a powerful perfume that could be smelled from the other side of the city.”
Of course, we do not typically consider somebody who has eaten an excessive amount of garlic and onions to be perfumed. However, in this case it has been used for comic effect, in order to heighten the absurdity of the situation.
But for the most part, perfume will be used in its denotative sense – that is, to describe a pleasant smell.
So when it comes to pleasant smells, both “scent” and “perfume” can be without issue.
And when talking about perfume, the product, itself? There is no difference. You can use “scent” and “perfume” interchangeably.
The Final Word
So, what is the difference between “scent” and “perfume”?
“Perfume”, generally speaking, refers to a mixture of alcohol or carrier oil, essential oils, and fragrance molecules. “Scent” can be used to describe any smell, pleasant or unpleasant.
In most cases, these words can be used interchangeably when talking about a smell that is pleasant. However, for the most part, you wouldn’t describe an unpleasant smell as a perfume, but rather as a scent.
Hopefully that cleared things up once and for all.