Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Skunked Terms.

Skunked Terms.

When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another — a phase that might take ten years or a hundred — it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use, even if it originated purely as the result of word-swapping or slipshod extension. Group 1 comprises various members of the literati, ranging from language aficionados to hard-core purists; Group 2 comprises linguistic liberals and those who don’t concern themselves much with language. As time goes by, Group 1 dwindles; meanwhile, Group 2 swells (even without an increase among the linguistic liberals).

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."

"Hopefully" is a good case in point. Until the early 1960s, the word appeared only infrequently — almost always with the meaning "in a hopeful manner" {she watched hopefully as her son, having teed off, walked down the first fairway}. Then a new use came into vogue, in the sense "one hopes; I hope; it is to be hoped" {hopefully, they’ll get it done on time}. The Group 1 objectors were vocal, and for a time the word acquired a bad odor. But with time the odor has faded, so that only a few diehards continue to condemn the word and its users.

To the writer or speaker for whom credibility is important, it’s a good idea to avoid distracting any readers or listeners — whether they’re in Group 1 or Group 2. Thus, in this view, "hopefully" is now unusable: some members of Group 1 continue to stigmatize the newer meaning, and any member of Group 2 would find the old meaning peculiar.

For information about the Language-Change Index, click here.
Quotation of the Day: "Nothing is easier than to write so that no one can understand; just as contrarily, nothing is more difficult than to express deep things in such a way that everyone must necessarily grasp them." Arthur Schopenhauer, "Schopenhauer on Style," in Best Advice on How to Write 61, 63 (Gorham Munson ed., 1952).

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  1. laurie  July 9, 2013

    I’m wondering if a word you used in this post, ‘comprise,’ belongs on the skunked list. What do you think?