The words sensual and sensuous are often used interchangeably, but careful writers would do well to think before using one or the other.

The terms share the root sens-, which means to arouse the senses. Sensual has referred to gratifying carnal, especially sexual, senses since before 1425. Sensuous is believed to have been created by John Milton in 1641 to mean relating to the senses instead of the intellect without the sexual connotation. Let’s look at some examples that use our pair strictly:

Designer Zac Posen sent out sensual cancan girls straight out of a vintage Paris revue.

Every once in awhile Pauline will recreate one of the sensuous feasts she and Luciano used to serve to guests seated around a shared table.

Today, though, many writers will use the words interchangeably:

Heat and dust Delhi’s sensual overload tests tourists, athletes

The way she gazes into his face, we are privileged to get a glimpse of a subtle and sensuous erotica.

It’s a shame to lose these shades of meaning. When you use sensuous, do you mean to include sexual undertones? Are those undertones absent when you use sensual? Your readers will only know if you choose your words wisely.