No matter how many times I watched the supermarket scene from Animal House, I used to continually confuse the distinction between sensual and sensuous. Then one day I stumbled upon an article while double-checking their usage for a story I was writing. After reading it and doing a bit more research, I came upon these points:
- “If one wants another only for some self-satisfaction, usually in the form of sensual pleasure, that wrong desire takes the form of lust rather than love.” (Mortimer Adler)
- Her first book of poems included several sensuous descriptions of flowers.
- “The controversial 1969 bestseller The Sensuous Woman would have been more accurately titled The Sensual Woman because its explicit subject matter concerns the unabashed gratification of sexual desire.”Here’s how you can keep the two words straight. If you mean lovely, pleasurable, or experienced through the senses, use sensuous; if you mean self-gratifying or pertaining to physical desires, use sensual. Sensuous thoughts have a pleasant effect on your senses as well as your mind. Sensual thoughts are erotic, sexually arousing, maybe even lewd.”
(Charles Harrington Elster, Verbal Advantage: Ten Easy Steps to a Powerful Vocabulary. Random House, 2009)
- The Origins of Sensuous
“Sensuous is an interesting word. The OED says it was apparently invented by [John] Milton, because he wanted to avoid the sexual connotations of the word sensual (1641).”The OED cannot find any evidence of the use of the word by any other writer for 173 years, not until [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge:Thus, to express in one word what belongs to the senses, or the recipient and more passive faculty of the soul, I have reintroduced the word sensuous, used, among many others of our elder writers, by Milton. (Coleridge, “Principles of General Criticism,” in Farley’s Bristol Journal, August 1814)“Coleridge put the word into ordinary circulation–and almost immediately it began to pick up those old sexual connotations that Milton and Coleridge wanted to avoid.”
(Jim Quinn, American Tongue and Cheek, Pantheon Books, 1980)
- Overlapping Meanings “The consensus of the commentators, from Vizetelly 1906 to the present, is that sensuous emphasizes aesthetic pleasure while sensual emphasizes gratification or indulgence of the physical appetites.”The distinction is true enough within one range of meanings, and it is worth remembering. The difficulty is that both words have more than one sense, and they tend often to occur in contexts where the distinction between them is not as clear cut as the commentators would like it to be.” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1994)
Therefore, the adjective sensual means affecting or gratifying the physical senses, especially in a sexual way. Sensuous means pleasing to the senses, especially those involved in aesthetic pleasure, as of art or music. However, a mnemonic would be even better.
After studying a bit more it occurred to me that a good mnemonic for the difference would be to remember that sensual and sexual both end in -ual. Boiling the meaning down a tad more, I realized that the only difference in pronunciation between the two is that one has a ks sound while the other has ns. Boil that down even more and you realize that the only difference is a k sound in the middle of one and an n sound in the middle of the other. After understanding that, it is easy to remember that sensual has a sexual connotation while sensuous means the senses in every way but a sexual one.
This is an updated version of an essay I published in The Chamber Magazine in December 2020.
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