Abbeville vs. Chicago: Word Usage


Yes, it’s time for another brief wrangle with the only style guide whose jacket color can be seen from outer space: The Chicago Manual of Style. We came across a puzzling entry today in their “Word Usage” section (a simpler title would have been “Diction,” but we’ll let that go) regarding the distinctions among “odious,” “odorous,” and several similar words. “Odious” they correctly identify as meaning “hateful,” and “odorous” as meaning “detectable by smell, for better or for worse,” but they go on to confuse the issue mightily:

Odoriferous means essentially the same thing [as odorous], although it has meant “fragrant” as often as it has meant “foul”…The mistaken form odiferous is often used as a jocular equivalent of smelly, but most dictionaries don’t record it. [Word Usage, 5.202]

Really—odiferous? Who “often” uses that as a synonym for “smelly”? Foghorn Leghorn? The Horseshoe Bend, Arkansas Manual of Style? Our theory is that someone at Chicago has a specific, jocular uncle—let’s call him Uncle Toby—who tried to put that one over on them when they were kids, so that they grew up believing it was in common usage. And while we’re at it, since when is odoriferous a neutral term that can easily mean “fragrant”? We dare the Chicago editors to try this word out the next time their significant others put on perfume or cologne. “No, honey, I meant it in the non-pejorative sense!”


Filed under Abbeville vs. Chicago, Books and Publishing

4 responses to “Abbeville vs. Chicago: Word Usage

  1. aaron hierholzer

    I think the Uncle Toby theory is quite plausible, but I will come to Chicago’s defense on the “Word Usage” title: It’s a lot clearer, as someone could conceivably think a section entitled “Diction” would be about enunciation.

    Then again, maybe my own past is tainting my perception. Forced to sing in a choir at a young age, the d-word summons memories of the director commanding us for hours on end to do things like pronounce Ts at ends of words as “TA!”

  2. abbeville

    You’re right, Aaron, “diction” has that ambiguous double meaning. On the other hand, it’s more concise, and as Strunk says, “Omit needless words.” We’ll call this one a toss-up.

    Sorry to hear about your traumatic childhood experience…like book editing, choir directing is a field well-suited to crazy obsessive-compulsive martinets. Oh well, at least we editors take our frustrations out on commas, not impressionable kids.

  3. Love the post. And I was laughing so hard at the Foghorn Leghorn reference. Also, I like “Diction”.

  4. abbeville

    Thanks Libby! We love the title of your blog: “Fig Newtons and Scotch.” That is truly the breakfast of champions.

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