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Writers Talk About Writing

The Politics of Writing: Should You Use Skunked Terms?

Write frequently enough, and someone, somewhere, is going to take offense to what you write. I don't mean the message you're offering (though that's a possibility, too) but your word choice.

Decimate. Literally. Hopefully.

These words, and others like them, provoke so much ire in some readers that they become troublesome to use. Critics feel that the writer is using the word in an unauthorized way, that it's being using to mean what it does not mean.

Decimate, such folks say, means "to kill 1 in 10" and not "to drastically reduce; to wipe out." Literally can't be used to mean "figuratively," and hopefully means "in a hopeful manner," not "it is to be hoped."

These critics have their finger on the pulse of language change. They can spot a change in a word's meaning at 100 yards. They know what the word has traditionally meant (most of the time) and what it is currently being used to mean.

The problem is that these critics don't like the change. So they kick up such a fuss that the word becomes skunked.

What Is a Skunked Term?

Coined by Bryan A. Garner, a "skunked term" is a word whose usage becomes such a controversy that it can't be used without raising a stink. Garner notes that there are generally two sides to the argument: Group 1 is in favor of what it views as the traditional meaning, while Group 2 accepts what's viewed as the new meaning. Writes Garner in Modern American Usage:

A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. The new use seems illiterate to Group 1; the old use seems odd to Group 2. The word has become ‘skunked.'

Note, though, that I said "views as the traditional meaning." Words in the middle of a meaning change aren't the only ones at risk of being skunked. Those only perceived to be going through a meaning change can become victims, as well.

Take decimate. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records its first appeared in print as c1600 with the meaning "to select by lot and put to death one in every ten of." It didn't take long for people to start using it figuratively. The first record of decimate to mean "to destroy or remove a large proportion of" occurred in 1663, accord to the OED.

All the major English language dictionaries accept both definitions, yet many people still take exception to the latter definition. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that in 2005, only 36% of its Usage Panel accepted the sentence "The supply of fresh produce was decimated by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl," although 81% accepted "The Jewish population of Germany was decimated by the war." You can figuratively decimate people but not objects, it seems.

Literally is another problem word. Although a fair number of people get upset about it being used to mean "figuratively," the OED shows that definition has been with us since 1769. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of American Usage notes that the fuss began at the turn of the 19th century. Literally isn't in the middle of a change, but it has carried an unpleasant odor about it for over 100 years now that hasn't dissipated with time.

Sometimes a word can gain enough acceptance that it's no longer skunked or only a minuscule group object to it, as with the adverb hopefully. "In a hopeful manner" is by far the older meaning, first appearing a1639, according to the OED.

Adverbs, you'll remember, modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and sentences. It seems that hopefully wasn't used to modify sentences, though, until 1932. It took critics 30 years to object to it and another 50 to (mostly) accept this new usage. As a sentence adverb, hopefully has been denounced by the best of them, including Wilson Follett, E. B. White, Roy H. Copperud, John Bremner, Theodore Bernstein, and William Safire (though White and Safire were eventually won over).

Then in 2012, The AP Stylebook, the style guide used by many US media outlets, capitulated its restriction against hopefully as a sentence adverb. The AP may have been the last major holdout against the sentence-adverb hopefully. The major English dictionaries list this definition as standard, with only a couple calling it out as colloquial. Given such acceptance, it seems unlikely that anyone would still protest the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb.

Should You Use Skunked Terms?

Until a word is released from skunkdom (if it ever is), using it can distract readers from your message. Instead of being dazzled by your ideas, they're horrified by your word choice.

You'll never please everyone, of course. But stop and think about your audience. Are those you'll offend important to your writing's cause? Do you need to court them for their approval? Or is your freedom of expression more important than the few (or the many) who will deride you?

The politics of writing demand that we think of such things. You must know your audience for your writing to succeed. After you've determined that you've used the word correctly and that it's appropriate for the style and tone of the text, ask yourself:

  • Will my readers understand the term as I mean it?
  • Will readers accept the term as I use it, or will they be so distracted by it that they miss my point?

If you can answer yes to both those questions, go ahead and use the skunked term. On the other hand, if using the term in question will distract those who matter most from your message, you'd do well to choose another word.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 13th 2014, 3:30 AM
Comment by: Dennis C. (Las Pinas City Philippines)
You have such a dazzling ideas about audiences and purposes of writing. There are some people who are just writing proving that they have a great vocabulary. Not know that conveying a clear meaning rather than being too artistic to be called a excellent writer.
Thursday March 13th 2014, 9:07 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Dennis, that's true. Some people write just to show off. My sense is, though, that the folks who read Visual Thesaurus are not such writers.
Friday March 14th 2014, 2:20 PM
Comment by: John E. (Mechanicsburg,, PA)
While I agree that I am a tradionalist I do use of "skunked" words, I most often write for myself--more stream of consciousness than for readers of my writing. Sometimes I do use words and constructions that seem wordy and awkward when I read them again. If I were to make my writing suitable for others to read, editing might change for me my original emotional sense. To make the emotional content resonate with others my readers would be limited to a very small cohort (big word) whose experiences would echo my own. Hopefully my writing then would be literally acceptable to my readers.
Sunday March 16th 2014, 6:36 AM
Comment by: Keshav (India)
Although I agree that the original meaning of these "skunk words" should be the only meaning for the words, but people use the others meanings ever so often that may be the new meanings should be given acceptance, that is how we have got so many words with one or more meanings, and these days people have started including both the meanings in dictionaries as well.

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