Words That Stink Like a Dead Skunk

The other day, my wife Linda and I were having a discussion about a local town crisis. I had one opinion. She had another. I was right and knew it.

I got so upset that she wouldn’t see how right I was that I literally lost my head.

Have you ever felt that way?

But let me tell you, she was not happy having to spend 2 hours reattaching my head.

Do you see the problem here? I used the word ‘literally’ in a way you’ll often hear it. The truth is – if this fictional argument had really happened – I would have figuratively lost my head, not literally.

‘Literally’ means how something really happened. If you use ‘literally’ the other way, you’re not alone. And according to my favorite word podcast, A Way with Words, it’s been a common and accepted usage for a couple of centuries.

The problem with using ‘literally’ in the figurative sense is what happened in my little story. It turned into something funny.

And you never want your reader to laugh at what you write in seriousness.

That’s why words like ‘literally’ should never be used, even when you use them in the strictest sense of the word.

Why shouldn’t you use ‘literally’ if you know you’re using it in that strictest sense?

Because of this: When I read or hear the word, I automatically slow down to see if it’s being used correctly. You never want your readers to slow down. You want them to be so riveted by what you’re saying that they don’t notice how you’re saying it. A word like ‘literally’ can slow the reader.

‘Literally’ is not the only word like this. Noted linguist Brian Garner has dubbed these words ‘skunked words.’ These are words that should be avoided because they carry an odor that slows or stops your reader.

Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage defines “skunked words” as words whose meaning or usage is so disputed that using them is likely to bother or distract readers.

Do you really want to bother or distract your reader?

Let’s take a look at the word ‘bimonthly’ as an example of a skunked word.

For a long time, bimonthly meant every two months. A bimonthly payment plan meant you pay every two months. (Similarly with biweekly and biannually).

But now many people understand it to mean twice a month. So in these instances, who’s right? Does ‘bimonthly’ mean every two months or twice a month?

Regardless of how conservative you are about language, both meanings are right. English is a living language. Word meanings change.

Because the meanings of these words are not clear, as a copywriter you have to put them in your skunked words category and not use them; ever.

If you did use them, you’d have to explain them, which wastes time. Something a good copywriter simply doesn’t do.

Skunked words with a bad odor …

Martha Barnet and Grant Barrett, the hosts of A Way with Words, have extended the meaning of skunked words to encompass other types of words. These are words that should be avoided because of unsavory undertones … even if those undertones aren’t reasonable.

This subcategory of skunked words includes words and phrases that might carry unintended racial, sexual, or social undertones.

Here’s a prime example: In 1999 Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams accepted the resignation of one of his staffers who had used a word that was misinterpreted as a racial slur. The offending word is defined as “grudgingly mean about spending.”

The Barnhard Dictionary of Etymology traces the origins of the word to the 1300s, to words meaning "miser" in Middle English. Nowhere is there any mention of racial meanings associated with the word.

However, since it is easily mistaken for a very offensive word, I won’t use it here and I would never use it in my copywriting. It’s not worth possibly offending my reader.

Other words and expressions in this category include “to call a spade a spade” and the ‘b-word’ when you’re referring to a female dog.

Have we lost some richness in expression because of the need to expunge these words from our formal writing?

Some people might say “yes.” But I look at avoiding words and expressions in this category of skunked words as an opportunity for me – and other writers – to work harder to find a better way of saying what we want to say.

What do you really mean?

The final category of skunked words is those with ambiguous meanings.

A good example of a word with an ambiguous meaning is ‘next.’ Does “next Friday” mean either March 25 or April 5? Why risk confusion? Throw this usage of “next” into your skunked words list and say it a different way.

Where can I find the Skunked Words list … ?

I know you’d love me to give you a list of all the skunked words to be avoided. Sorry. Can’t do it. I’ll give you some I’ve come up with. But here’s the strategy that’ll serve you best.

Use words – all words – with an eye, ear, and nose for the odor of skunk. If you’re not sure how a reader will interpret or respond to a word, that’s your signal to look for a different way of saying it.

That said, here are some of the more common skunked words and phrases:

  • begs the question (consistently misused)
  • comprise (meaning shifting)
  • oriental (considered by some an ethnic slur)
  • jimmies (an ice cream topping, but in racial slur some regions)
  • livid (commonly misused, means drained of blood, not reddish)
  • couldn’t care less / couldn’t care more (just plain confusing)
  • enervate (misused, means to drain of energy, not to energize)
  • notorious (now being used to mean” famous” instead of “infamous”)

I’d love to hear what words are on your skunked words list. Email me at wnewman@awaionline.com and let me know. I’ll add them to my list.

Until next week – keep writing.

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Published: March 25, 2013

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