Of vs. Like

On K.’s recommendation, I’m reading the first Mortal Instruments book, which has sucked me in, in spite of my predisposition to view it as stupid. It’s very entertaining. I’m a little disturbed by all the slapping the main gal does and some of the teenage angst is something I think would have appealed to me as a teenager, but kind of doesn’t now.

But one thing the author does that drives me bonker is that things “smell of” all over the place. “This blanket smells of elderberries, rabbit stew, and loneliness.” Or “he smelled of blood, sweat, and iron ore.”

Here’s the thing. I think there’s a difference between “like” and “of.” If I write “he smelled of lilacs” it’s because I want you to imagine that he’s just come from the lilac bush. But if I write, “he smelled like dirt” I want you to imagine that he had some earthy scent that was kind of similar to the smell of dirt. You smell of something you’ve recently been in contact with. You smell like something that is a metaphor for how you smell.

And yet, I think the author uses “smelled of” to mean both things. So, I don’t know if a character literally smelled like monkey poop–meaning it’s an indication he’s just been near a monkey–or if he just kind of has a weird, unpleasant odor.

3 thoughts on “Of vs. Like

  1. As I was finishing the second paragraph I was thinking of the proper distinction being what you explained in the third paragraph. Yep, that’s it. And it matters. Seems strange for a writer to not have facility with complex and subtle ways to give descriptions and make comparisons.

  2. “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.” It had to be said. For people of my age, “smelled of” says the taunting French soldier in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a distracting affectation.

  3. Professor, the weird thing about it is that she’s a fantastically vivid writer. I mean, this is like three leagues above, say, Charlene Harris in the quality department–fun story, interesting characters, and otherwise, so far, very well written.

    I’m starting to wonder if she wasn’t done wrong by some copyeditor who didn’t know better.

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