Tuesday, June 12, 2012


(This article first appeared in the June issue of the legal magazine Lexpert.)


Semantic Skunking


Howard Richler

If my Lexpert editor gives me fulsome praise should I be a)bemused, b)disinterested or


Lexicographer Bryan Garner in Garner's Modern American Usage states that “when a

word undergoes a marked change from one use to another – a phrase that might take ten

years or a hundred- it's likely to be the subject of dispute.” He adds that “a word is most

hotly disputed in the middle of the process: any use of it is likely to distract some

readers.” A good example of this process is the word “fulsome.” Until recently this

word's dominant meaning was “offensively excessive” but increasingly it is used by

many erudite people, even Bay Street attorneys, to mean “extravagant.” Garner

characterizes such a disputed word as “skunked” and as best avoided. Hence, although

there might be some ancient pedant who believes that “egregious” should still mean

remarkably good as it literally means in Latin, “above the flock,” the fact remains that it

has not been used in a positive sense since 1845. Ergo, by Garner's dictum, egregious

would not qualify as a skunked word.

The reality, of what qualifies as a “skunked” word is not as clear-cut as Garner


Can anyone say definitively when a word has been “skunked”? Garner includes in his

list of skunked words, “decimate” and “hopefully” whereas I, and many others, regard

the use of “decimate” to mean “kill one-tenth and the exclusive use of “hopefully” to

mean only “in a hopeful manner” and not “one hopes,” to be hopelessly moribund.

Some prescriptive language commentators decry the use of “jejune” to mean “childish”

and point out that change in meaning stemmed from the mistaken belief that the word

stemmed from the French word for “young” jeune and the Latin juvenus.

Notwithstanding this mistaken belief, dictionaries accept “childish” as one of the meanings of “jejune.” Similarly, some language purists argue that the word “dilemma''

should only be used to refer to a choice between two unpleasant alternatives and not a

plight or predicament, but most dictionaries allow for this latter sense.

Also, we must acknowledge that some usages that might not be acceptable in British

English are acceptable in North American English. Examples of such are the verbs

careen” and “aggravate.” The former (notwithstanding that it should be “career”) is

common in North America English just as using aggravate to mean “annoy” is well

established in both Canada and the USA. Relative to the use of aggravate to mean

annoy,” Wynford Hicks advises in Quite Literally, “Use with care since purists

disapprove of the second {annoy} usage.” The reality, however, is that this usage has

been entrenched in North America for many decades.

And who is to be the final arbiter as to what qualifies as proper English? According to

Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and other American dictionaries “infer”

means the same as “imply,” “peruse” means not only to “examine carefully” but to “read

over in a casual manner,” “disinterested” can mean “not interested” as well as

impartial,” “enormity” can mean the same as “enormousness.” and “bemused” can

mean “mildly amused” as well as “bewildered.” I do not agree with all these laissez-

faire attitudes. For example, I believe the distinction between disinterested and

uninterested is important and, I use enormity only to mean “wickedness” not “size.”

This being said, I believe that when an overwhelming majority of people use a word in a

certain way, (80% to 90% I believe constitutes an overwhelming majority) that we must

recognize the newer sense of the word, notwithstanding that an erudite minority regard it

as “wrong.” On the other hand, when the newer sense of a word is not entrenched I

believe we should be loath to accept it. For example, many people use “non-plussed” to

mean “unfazed” rather than “perplexed,” but since this newer usage is found currently in

no more than one-half of cases, I propose that at least for the moment it should be

avoided lest your meaning be misunderstood.

Recently deceased language commentator William Safire started out as a rigid

prescriptivist but even he acknowledged in his book In Love With Norma Loquendi that

the masses represent the final arbiter of language: “The rules laid down by elites are to

be respected, but in the end democracy, which goes by the name of common usage, will

work its will..When the population challenges the order over a period of time, Norma

Loquendi - the everyday voice of the native speaker - is the heroine who changes the

order and raises a new standard.”


Howard's next book From Gay (Happy) to Gay (Homosexual) and other mysterious

semantic shifts is being published by Ronsdale Press in Spring 2013.

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