The English language can be a confusing thing, especially when multiple words are used across British and American English pronunciations, look the same, or sound the same and mean different things.
Smelled and smelt are two very frustrating words since they can mean the same thing but also have different meanings depending on how they are used – or who is talking.
Frustrating, isn’t it?
Let’s delve a bit deeper into what each of these words means and how you can use them to help clear up any confusion.
What’s the Difference Between Smelled and Smelt?
In American and Canadian English, the verb smell becomes smelled in the past tense and as a past participle. Outside North America, English speakers use smelled and smelt interchangeably, and neither form is significantly more common than the other.
Smelt can also mean a small, silvery fish or the action of melting rock to extract metals.
Meaning and Use of Smelled
Smell means to perceive, detect, or become aware of odor through the stimulation of olfactory nerves found in the nose.
Smell is a verb that is included with groups of verbs having more than one way of spelling their past tense forms. These differences are usually due to differences in spelling conventions between American and British English.
Smell is the present tense, while the past tense is smelled. But, outside of North America, you can also use smelt (more on that below).
- The lounge had a particular odor that smelled of rotten milk, most likely because somebody had unplugged the refrigerator over the Thanksgiving break.
- The boy’s laundry smelled like unwashed feet and the dirt of the outdoors; it permeated into the rest of the room.
- Something smelled bad near the factory, prompting the workers to search for the source; they discovered an old raccoon nest in one of the pipes.
Meaning and Use of Smelt
For North Americans, smelt usually means (1) to melt or fuse ores and (2) any of several small, silvery fishes of the family Osmeridae found in fresh waters of the northern hemisphere.
- The smelting process involved incredibly high temperatures in order to extract the metals we were seeking.
- You must smelt the iron to get useable metal out of it.
- The smelts use the river to reach their spawning ground, allowing us to scoop them up by the netful.
- Smelt is best eaten whole after frying them in a batter.
Smelt as a past tense form of smell is not unheard of in North America, but it is rare, appearing mainly in the rhyming jocular expression “whoever smelt it dealt it” (and its variants).
You’ll more likely see smelt as a form of smell in UK-influenced English-speaking countries.
- He sniffed the air and smelt the salt on the breeze from the nearby ocean.
- She chastised the students, proclaiming she smelt the burnt popcorn from outside the building.
- The wastewater plant smelt horrible.
The Popularity of Smelled vs. Smelt
Despite smelt still being an accepted and popular spelling outside of North America, smelled is the preferred spelling worldwide in the modern day.
Smelt was the obvious popular spelling prior to the late 1800s, but spelled has gained ground in its use since then, surpassing the use of smelt worldwide in the mid-1900s.
Smelled and smelt are both acceptable spellings of smell’s past tense and past participle forms. However, smelled is the preferred North American spelling and has surpassed the overall use of smelt worldwide in recent years.
Smelled is specific to the conjugation of smell, meaning to detect scent or odor. Smelt can also be used in this manner or also be used to describe the melting or fusing of ores or the small type of fish found in the Northern Hemisphere.