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What is the difference between aroma and scent? Looking at the NOAD, I would say differences are few.

  • Aroma: a distinctive, typically pleasant smell
  • Scent: a distinctive smell, especially one that is pleasant

As Italian, I would use aroma since that is also an Italian word. Are there cases in which I should rather talk of scent?

In Italian, the other word I could use is profumo (probably translatable with "scent," in this case), which could be used for coffee too as in Che profumo di caffè! ("What a […] of coffee!"). Also, in Italian, when explaining the meaning of aroma ("aroma"), I would explain it in terms of profumo.

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There are times where I would tend to favor one over the other, but I'm having trouble figuring out a simple rule that dictates which one I would choose. I would describe:

  • The aroma of bread, coffee, and wine, but
  • The scent of a skunk, a perfume, a flower, or a woman

Aroma seems to be the more natural word for describing blends of food and spice, while scent seems to be more apt for describing the natural smell of a plant or animal.

Also, not too unlike atoms and molecules, scents seem more fundamental, while aromas seem like more of a mixture or blend. So, I might talk about the scent of a particular candle, but the aromas of the candle store.

Still, the literature has plenty of counterexamples, such as the scent of bread, or the aroma of the flower, or the scent of the wine, so it would be a mistake to interpret any of these thoughts as "rules". The two words are largely synonymous, so there's plenty of room for overlap. If someone said that only one of the two words could be used in a particular context, I'd regard that as smelling fishy.

  • I think "scent of a skunk" is categorically different from your other examples. In all cases scents are distinctive smells, but in the sense "the smell that an animal or person has, which some animals can follow", pleasant is not implied. I think it's this sense where aroma is less likely--an animal has scent glands, not aroma glands. – snailcar Feb 23 '13 at 12:11
  • In your examples of aromas, you are referring to something that is made from vegetables, or vegetable substances. Can it be that what makes a difference? Even if it is not a rule that is generally valid, could it be used as general guide? – kiamlaluno Feb 23 '13 at 12:23
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    @kiamlaluno It's not restricted to plants, but you are correct. See sense one in Collins: "a distinctive usually pleasant smell, esp of spices, wines, and plants" – snailcar Feb 23 '13 at 12:41
  • @snailplane: You're correct of course. (Incidentally, I included that example on purpose; I was hoping to make that point, but not necessarily explain it. Thanks for your help, your comments have improved my answer considerably.) – J.R. Feb 23 '13 at 12:53
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    A scent can be unpleasant or neutral (though characteristic). I don't think I've ever found "aroma" used to describe anything less than pleasant, except maybe in ironical context. – SF. Feb 23 '13 at 19:29
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I think the difference lies in purpose.

Aromas are where the smell is incidental to what is happening:
- baking bread, making coffee, sweating.

Scents, on the other hand, have intent:
- skunks, to scare off predators
- cat/dog wee, to mark territory
- perfume, to attract a sexual partner
- flowers, to attract bees for pollination

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In Modern English, both of these words are normally used to refer to pleasant odors; there are other words for unpleasant ones (stink, stench, reek, ...)

English has many pairs of words that mean almost exactly the same thing, because of its many layers of mass borrowings. In this case, aroma is from Greek via Latin and originally referred to pleasant-smelling herbs for seasoning food with; scent is taken from French sentir (which also gives rise to the modern English verb sense) and originally referred to the act of tracking a game animal by its smell.

Some of these word-pairs have fine distinctions in their basic meaning: for instance, wood and forest both can mean an area of land densely covered in trees, but a wood is typically smaller than a forest. Others don't. Native speakers choose between these words based on how they fit the rhythm of the larger sentence, or distinctions of tone or connotation that are difficult to describe. You do not have to worry about whether you have "gotten it wrong" while you are still learning the language. If you want to improve your ear for the fine distinctions, the best way to go about it is just to read a great deal in the language.

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