Sensual and Sensuous

Commonly Confused Words

"The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace" (Kate Chopin, The Awakening, 1899)
Marc-Antoine Kikano/EyeEm/Getty Images

The adjectives sensual and sensuous are often used interchangeably, but their meanings aren't quite the same.

Definitions

The word 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.

As explained in the usage notes below, this fine distinction is often overlooked.

Examples

  • "Although salsa is marketed as a sexy, sensual dance, dancers view and perform these elements differently."
    (Aleysia Whitmore, "Bodies in Dialogue." Women and Language, ed. by M. Ames and S.H. Burcon. McFarland, 2009)
  • "Yoga is the most subversive pastime in Britain today. Sweaty, sensual, semi-naked and esoteric, it's the closest thing we have to a genuine counter-culture."
    (NirpalDhaliwal, "Vicars Are Right to Be Afraid of 'Sweaty and Sensual' Yoga." The Guardian [UK], September 5, 2007)
  • Marti's first book of poems included several sensuous descriptions of flowers.
  • "The rough-hewn sounds of clacking spoons, twanging banjos and humming fiddles might seem to be something of an anomaly in a city known more for Edith Piaf’s sensuous lullabies."
    (Matthew Stone, "Appalachia on the Seine: Bluegrass Swings in Paris." The New York Times, August 3, 2016)
      

Usage Notes

"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)

Practice

(a) The ad promised _____ excitement with the slogan, "She wears nothing but a smile."

(b) Classical dance is at once the most _____ and the most abstract of the theatrical arts.

Answers to Practice Exercises: Sensual and Sensuous

(a) The ad promised sensual excitement with the slogan, "She wears nothing but a smile."

(b) Classical dance is at once the most sensuous and the most abstract of the theatrical arts.