penetrating smell

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Senior Member
India - Hindi
Is a penetrating smell strong (like over-applied perfume) or sharp (as in pungent)? Can it be both?

On the Collins Dictionary website, one of the definitions of penetrating (which lists penetrating smell and penetrating sound as examples) is ‘able to penetrate; piercing’. By this definition, I thought a penetrating sound would be a sharp or shrill noise, but it can also just mean loud, according to another source; hence, the confusion about penetrating smell.

Sorry about all the penetrating’s 😬
  • dojibear

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    "Penatrating" is a gerund, which means "going through something". That something is usually a defense of some kind. So "penetrating" says nothing about the nature of the sound/smell. It doesn't mean "sharp" or "loud" or "pleasant" or "unpleasant". It just means it gets through some kind of barrier.

    We usually don't notice the thousands of smells near us. That "ability to not notice" is a kind of defense. A smell that we notice "has penetrated" our defenses enough to be noticed.


    Senior Member
    USA, English
    Chemicals with high volitile organic compounds can penetrate, but not all of them have much of a smell. Most solvents and pesticides fall in the smelly category. Formaldehyde and cyanide have distinct odors that can be called "penetrating". Formaldehyde smells bad; cyanide smells like perfume.

    Others, like antifreeze have little odor (ethyl glycol) and are tasteless. But the VOCs remain.
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