Dear Word Detective: In the past three weeks, having read three different novels by three different authors (That’s a lot of threes, isn’t it?), I have come across the usage of the word “redolent” in all of them. Although 70 years old and fairly well educated, I must admit that neither I nor any of my friends have ever used this word before. I am sure I must be making “a mountain out of a mole hill,” but considering its frequent use lately, I am wondering if the word is the new darling of the literati (I can just visualize the author sitting there with his/her thesaurus open). I firmly believe in increasing one’s vocabulary and consequently have added this word to mine, but the seeming over-use of the word tends to render it somewhat trite and artificial to me. Or is it just my provincial Midwestern roots coming to the fore? — John E. Bowles.
Well, mountains have to come from somewhere, don’t they? Think of all the brave little moles it took to make the Himalayas.
I understand your skepticism about the apparent sudden affection for “redolent” among writers. A search of Google News produces 214 hits for the word at the moment (versus 902,000 on plain old Google), and I would bet that the count for “redolent” in news stories a few years ago would have been near zero. I too am annoyed by vogue words and phrases that whoosh in from nowhere and are suddenly popping up in one’s face every few minutes. I was ready to mount a campaign to outlaw “at the end of the day” when it swamped the airwaves and magazine racks a few years ago, but pundits are fickle critters and the phrase faded away before I had a chance.
On the other hand, I’m sort of fond of “redolent.” I’ve used it several times in this column over the years (“They were lovely big dill pickles, crisp and pungent, redolent of garlic and onion and the teeming germs from countless grubby little hands”), and I love the rolling sound of the word: RED-oh-lent.
“Redolent,” from the Latin “redolere” meaning “to emit a smell,” literally means “to smell of something.” While that odor was presumed to be pleasant in the 15th century when “redolent” first appeared in English, today a person or place can be “redolent” of unpleasant things as well. More importantly, “redolent” has also developed a figurative sense meaning “strongly suggestive or reminiscent of” a quality or feeling, whether good or bad (“On every side Oxford is redolent of age and authority,” 1856). While some uses in this sense have become trite (“redolent of wealth,” for instance, is a deadly cliche), I think it’s still a useful word.