redolent

“Boy, it smells.”

“Smells? Smells of what?”

“Smells of something nice.”

“…”

“I mean, it’s pungent.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“Sure, it has a nice odour.”

“Like, it reeks of good things?”

“Well, what? Is there another word for smelly that’s not freighted with negative associations?”

“Like a word that seems made to be said by a gentleman with an Italian accent?”

“Yeah, sure, a roll of the tongue, a tap, a liquid, a nasal, a final crisp point.”

“Do you mind if it makes you sound like a hackneyed newspaper scribbler?”

“…Um… should I?”

And so we come to redolent. It’s a delicious three syllables, more sapid than lentil, not as bright as red, entirely oblivious to rodent, rolling off the tongue like an Italian second dish. It’s not a verb, it’s an adjective – and it usually shows up with one of two prepositions: of and with.

So already it’s a little starchy because while you can use verb forms of some of the others (it smells, it reeks), you have to use a form of be plus a preposition to make redolent work. I mean, yes, you can say “That’s a very redolent cigar you have,” if you don’t mind sounding like the sort of self-consciously sesquipedalian person who will always say “reticent” where “shy” would be better. But normally you say something is redolent with a thing or redolent of a thing.

What’s the difference? “Redolent of X” means it has the smell of X, but of course in a rich, evocative way. (The writer thinks, “I want something lyrical here,” and grabs this word, which tends to come with a little flag sticking out of it, “Try me! I’m evocative!”) The air ­– most often it’s the air – is redolent of spices, garlic, perfume, onion soup. It borrows on reminiscent of (we will not say reeking of). “Redolent with X” means it is full-smelling, rich and evocative – the smell is saturated, red-lined even – and that the main element in this richness is X. It’s in the same vein as spiced with, alive with, rankling with, pregnant with, riddled with, that sort of thing.

Either way, it revs up with the opening /r/ and then readily rattles off three syllables. Etymologically, it uses the Latin re prefix as an intensifier; the d is inserted because there needs to be a consonant between the e and the following vowel. The olent has the same ol as in olfactory, from olere ‘emit a smell’.

And unlike smelly, pungent, odorous, reeking, and so on, it does not have a primary negative tone. Nor, on the other hand, is it flowery like perfumed. It is mellifluous, polysyllabic, literary. All of which make it ripe to be hackneyed by scribblers who want easy shortcuts to textual flavour and evocativeness. It is a sort of instant umami, a dash of nam pla – or more likely a sprinkling of powdered onion soup mix on the top of the casserole of words. Use it with care, therefore; you don’t want your text to be redolent of – or redolent with the odour of – junior journalists and other hacks.

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