What’s that smell? What you need to know about “skunked” words.

Do you know the phrase “skunked term?” As a writer, this is an important concept that you should be familiar with.

I’ve used the phrase before on this blog without explanation (in the post about decimate). Today, its time has come.

In his Dictionary of Modern American Usage (DMAU), Bryan Garner introduced the term. In a nutshell, Garner’s argument runs like this:

Sometimes a word undergoes a change in usage or meaning, shifting from its original (or current) meaning to another. While that shift is underway, which “might take ten years or a hundred” (DMAU 63), there are frequently two groups when it comes to attitudes toward the word. One group is the old guard, the ‘traditionalists,’ insistent on the original meaning. The second group, the ‘progressives,’ consists of everyone else – those who favor the new use, or are ignorant of the old, or who simply don’t care.

During the transition from one meaning to another, the word is contested. Traditionalists insist on correcting when the new meaning is used; progressives insist on using the word with the meaning they understand it to have (to be fair, their concern doesn’t usually go farther than feeling that the old use merely sounds odd, and they often don’t understand what the fuss is about).

Over time, the traditionalists dwindle while the progressives multiply. If there’s serious dispute over the use of the word, it’s at its peak when the traditionalists and progressives are about equal in number.

Throughout the transition the word may smell bad to both sides. It has become “skunked,” as Garner says, because no matter which camp the user is in, and no matter how correct the use, some readers will be confused or offended or simply distracted. Garner’s advice is to avoid using skunked words altogether, to sidestep any trouble.

Garner’s original example was “hopefully,” which according to him began transitioning in meaning from “in a hopeful manner” to “one hopes” around the early 1960s. As someone who was in school during the ’70s and ’80s, I can confirm that this was a common hobgoblin of English teachers (often traditionalists), and was frequently corrected. By the time DMAU came along in 1998, it wasn’t quite a dead issue, but the holdouts were much fewer (they’d been “decimated,” if you will). Today, the argument over “hopefully” is nearly moot. Colloquial use has moved on.

Garner listed several other skunked terms in the mother entry: data, decimate, effete, enormity, fulsome, and transpire. His explanation for skunking each was solid – at the time.

Implicit in Garner’s explanation, but not really discussed, is that being skunked is only a temporary condition. A word begins in one state, passes through a period of ambiguity, and emerges with another meaning or accepted use. For example, Garner skunkeddata” because of the dispute over whether it was plural or singular, still commonly debated back then. Today? The number of people insisting that only “data are” is acceptable has declined a lot. Not that they’ve all thrown in the towel: a superficial Google search indicates that about 1 in 5 uses still pluralizes. But I feel that I’m on solid ground when I say that a clear majority has either given this up or – more importantly – no longer feels the need to correct it. In fact, many people now use “data is” and “data are” based on the context, the same way they’d say a single sheep is, but multiple sheep are. (AP style takes this approach, categorizing data as a plural noun, but citing singular exceptions.)

One further comment on skunking. To my mind, Garner’s original suggestion (to avoid the skunked word altogether) has a an unpleasant whiff of passivity about it. Think about the practical effect. If a word is changing and you know it, you have three options: cling to the old meaning, adopt the new meaning, or don’t use the word at all. If we all followed Garner’s advice, we would remove ourselves from active participation. By not using a word, we take no position and leave the work to others. I’d rather be involved, and, while I recommend that most students skunk words that are in an obvious transitional state  (to avoid headaches), the professional writer should be more assertive. If you’ve got a very good reason (such as an insistent client, or an audience where controversy will be unwelcome, or even a specific point that would be weakened by the distraction), then by all means skunk the word. But if you care enough about a word to have a position, then push the use in the direction that matters to you. Whether that direction be “traditional” or “progressive.” Take a stand.

To Garner’s original list, I’ll offer a few candidates for skunking, with brief reasons:

Oriental (currently in transition from a slur back to its neutral meaning, “of or from the east”).
(still limited to “to make use of” rather than as a synonym for “use” by some).
Jimmies (in New England a candied topping for ice cream, but in some regions a racial slur).
Liberal, elite, literati – as well as, unfortunately, many other words associated with what passes for political debate (used too often as raw insults, stripped of their real meanings).

Do I recommend you skunk these words? No. But as with all the words that you choose, you need to know how they’ll be received by the audience. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.

Here are a few others that I’ve seen people suggest should be skunked: livid, nonplussed, bemused, friend (because of the distortion of meaning related to Facebook), dilapidated, and refugee (which in some quarters became an insult after Hurricane Katrina).

You probably know of others, and now that you know the concept of the skunked term, you can decide for yourself what to do about them.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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12 Responses to What’s that smell? What you need to know about “skunked” words.

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  9. jwmtb says:

    “To my mind, Garner’s original suggestion (to avoid the skunked word altogether) has a an unpleasant whiff of passivity about it” ~ That was what I thought as well when reading his suggestion. Cowardly, too.

    • I wrote that post over two years ago, and a month hasn’t gone by without discussing a potential skunking issue with a student or client (or pondering one in my own writing). I still have very mixed feelings on this.
      It can be argued that skunking words is a sign of cowardice, as you note. But there is the perpetual problem of all writing: that the meaning needs to be clear. Using words when the definition has become ambiguous runs totally counter to that.
      It’s a difficult line to walk, and I find in practice you have to step back and forth a lot.

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