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What is the difference between "suavis" and "dulcis"? Are they synonymous?

2 Answers 2

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Here's what Döderlein's Handbook of Latin Synonymes (sic.; tr. Arnold) has to say on these words:

Suavis; Dulcis. Suavis (ἠΰς) denotes, like ἡδύς, a pleasant odor, and, figuratively that which gives a calm pleasure; dulcis, like γλυκύς, a pleasant flavor, and, figuratively, that which gives a lively pleasure; hence dulcis is a stronger expression than suavis, in Plin. Ep. v. 8, 10. Hæc vel maxima vi, amaritudine, instantia; illa tractu et suavitate, atque etiam dulcedine placet. Plin. H. N. xv. 27. Dulce, et pingue, et suave. (iii. 256.)

Caveat: this is probably too clear-cut of a distinction -- as cmw points out, in actual usage the senses seem to overlap a lot more.

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  • Interesting. Thanks for the reference to Döderlein; I'd never heard of it before.
    – Geremia
    Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 21:40
  • I'm not really sure Döderlein's delineation holds up in actual usage, even if that is the ultimate origin. Both ἡδύς and suavis can refer to taste, and Pliny Maior mentions the dulcis odor of Polycnemon. The OLD lists plenty of examples of each for both, too, and in fact places taste first for both.
    – cmw
    Commented Nov 17, 2021 at 0:33
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    @cmw The distinction does seem a bit too neat; I was hesitant to challenge the authority of an illustrious 19C German, but your examples are convincing (and I find that the Britannica thought D's work was "marred by over-subtlety"). Adding a caveat.
    – TKR
    Commented Nov 17, 2021 at 2:11
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Yes, they are synonyms. They both for example can be contrasted with amarus ('bitter').

quod suave est aliis, aliis fit amarum Lucr. 4.658

sentit et dulcia et amara Cic. N. D. 3, 13

While they can also both mean 'pleasant' (synonymous with amoenus and iucundus) where they ostensibly diverge is when dulcis means 'friendly' (more synonymous with amicus). Lewis and Short don't mention that meaning for suavis, and I don't recall an example off-hand that suffices, but we're otherwise splitting a hare's hairs here.

Despite their origins, they both can refer to taste and smell. Pliny the Elder for example mentions the dulcis odor of Polycnemon. The OLD lists plenty of examples of each for both, too, and in fact places taste first for both.

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