Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt
Have you ever crossed paths with a skunk? I once chased an armadillo down a dark country road, but that’s a story for another day.
While I’ve never come nose-to-tail with a skunk, I’ve taken notice where one has raised a stink, so to speak. What gives a skunk its spunk? I don’t know — but I can tell you all about skunked terms.
Take the word “biweekly,” for example. Traditionally, biweekly has meant “every two weeks.” Your job may pay you biweekly. Although this is what the word originally meant, people have come to understand “biweekly” to mean “twice a week.” Wouldn’t you love to get paid twice a week?
Biweekly is a classic example of a skunked term, a phrase coined by lexicographer Bryan A. Garner in 2008. A skunked term is a word that becomes tricky to use because it is transitioning from one definition to another. Whether it’s correct or not, the trending usage of biweekly makes it a confusing word to use.
Suppose you have laundry drying on a clothesline and a skunk comes by and sprays the garment with its stinky skunk scent. The shirt smells awful. Even after you wash and re-wash the shirt, it never quite gets back to normal; the shirt has been irreparably changed. And don’t suggest washing the shirt in tomato juice — that’s actually a myth! Tomato juice doesn’t get the stink out of something that has been sprayed by a skunk. It’s still a shirt, but now it’s just a foul-smelling shirt. It’s been skunked.
What I’m suggesting is that we hit the pause button on using skunk terms. Since the words we choose are critical in making our communication clear, using a word that is transitioning from one definition to another is distracting, if not downright confusing.
Here are some more examples of skunked terms. “Decimate” originally meant taking out one-tenth of an enemy’s army; now it has come to mean totally destroying something. A “factoid” used to be an untrue statement that many believe to be accurate; now it means a small fact. Confusing, right?
Originally the term “disinterested” meant “unbiased,” while now many use it to mean “uninterested.” Similarly, the word “nonplussed” originally meant surprised and confused, while many people use it today to mean unconcerned. Because these words are somewhere between their original meanings and their “trending” meanings, they’re skunked.
I suggest staying far away from skunks and skunk terms until the skunk is well past your path; otherwise, you may find yourself nonplussed on a biweekly basis.