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What is the difference between 'stench' and 'stink', both used as nouns and smells? I want the olfactory distinction of these words. I am very much aware of the other meanings of stink but that is not what I want.

For example:

  • There was a stench in the bathroom.
  • There was a stink in the bathroom.

What's the distinction here?

  • There could be a stench of rotten fish; but an event can cause a stink and not stench. Both are used as nouns there. – Maulik V Mar 11 '14 at 12:58
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    RE: They cannot both mean the same thing, can they? (1) Why not? (2) Did you check a dictionary? What did you find there? – J.R. Mar 11 '14 at 21:24
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The Oxford dictionary describes stench as:

A strong and very unpleasant smell

It describes stink as:

A strong unpleasant smell; a stench

So according to this, both words mean the same. I found also that both have the same etymology. They arise from the Old English stenc.

I was wondering if there were a shred of difference in their meanings but I am not able to find any. An English professor, very long ago, had told me that no two words in the English language have the same meaning. They may have similar meanings, but not same. But here we seem to have refuted his ideology.

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    That was Bolinger's Dictum, from Aspects of Language (1968): "A difference in syntactic form always spells a difference in meaning." Compare this with Arnold Zwicky's hedged version: "Lexical and syntactic variation is unfree; variants usually have (subtly) different meanings or discourse functions, which can be observed in certain contexts (though these differences might not be of consequence in many contexts)." And here, at least, this holds true: stink and stench may have the same meaning in many contexts, but for example "raise a stink" cannot be replaced with "raise a stench". – snailcar Mar 12 '14 at 20:20
  • Yes @snailplane. They cannot be interchanged in all circumstances, but since I was pointedly looking at their olfactory difference, I find that there is none. You have prompted me to look up Bolinger's Dictum, thanks for that. – Neil D'Silva Mar 13 '14 at 3:48
  • The two words very probably had the same relationship as drink and drench once did (you would drink yourself, but you would drench another person or animal). Following that pattern, you might stink, but you'd stench everyone downwind of you because of it. But that would have been at least the better part of a thousand years ago, and semantic drift happens in all living languages. – Stan Rogers Jul 29 '15 at 19:26
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"Stench" is always a bad smell, but "stink" can have other meanings too - for example, "Kick up a stink" means to make a fuss about something.

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They mean essentially the same thing. "Stench" is probably the stronger word, to be used for more extremely bad smells.

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After doing some research on this, I suspect the following. Please tell me if this is right or wrong...

A stink is a foul smell of an organic origin - rotting corpse, fart, skunk, rotten eggs, etc. A stench can be any kind of bad smell, not necessarily organic - chemicals, pollutants, etc.

What does everyone think of this?

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    Whether or not there is a technical distinction here, I do not imagine any different origins when I hear one of these words or the other. “Stench” might be stronger, but that might just be because it isn't used as a verb and therefore isn't used as much. Even so, I'd draw more about the smell and its intensity from context—especially intonation. – Tyler James Young Mar 11 '14 at 14:08
  • @TylerJamesYoung It's interesting what you say: “Stench” might be stronger, but that might just be because it isn't used as a verb and therefore isn't used as much. – Neil D'Silva Mar 11 '14 at 15:01
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    Dictionary definitions (stink: a strong and offensive smell, a stench; stench: a strong and extremely offensive smell, stink) suggest that they are interchangeable but that stench is a stronger word than stink. @Neil: I don't personally restrict my use of stink to organic bad smells. Factory pollution stinks, for example, and the stench from a chicken farm is bad enough to knock a buzzard off a manure wagon. – BobRodes Mar 11 '14 at 17:55
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Stink is the verb and stench is the noun. Using stink as the noun is or was gramatically incorrect but now commonly done. A similar relationship occurs between drink and drench, link and lynch, break and breach etc.

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