Copy “Skunk” Words to Avoid
I had an interesting experience this morning at my local elementary school.
Sarah, an extremely intelligent 7th grader, told me about a dispute she had with her mother over what she was wearing.
In addition to being intelligent, Sarah can also be very strong willed. The upshot for Sarah was she had to change clothes to suit her mother’s will.
“I was so mad,” Sarah told me, “I literally exploded!”
Sarah’s only 13, so I avoided making obvious wise-guy comments I might have made to an older person. Sarah hadn’t exploded. All of her body parts were exactly where they belonged.
At her request, I’ve been working with Sarah for a year on her already excellent writing skills. So I explained how she’d misused the word. She thanked me and laughed when she imagined pieces of Sarah scattered all over the classroom.
As a copywriter, be clear, be believable, be honest, but never be funny …
As a copywriter, you never want your reader to laugh at something you write in seriousness. (It’s seldom a good idea even to be intentionally funny in copywriting.)
Causing your reader to laugh at an error like this distracts him, slows him down. It can even reduce your credibility.
When you misuse words like ‘literally,’ you run that risk. Certainly, not every reader would be bothered by the misuse of the word. Many might not even notice. But some will.
So why take the chance of derailing any reader who might become a buyer? It’s not worth it.
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 it if you’re using it correctly?
Because when readers like me read or hear the word, they 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 your reader.
Do you really want to distract your 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.”
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 many people now understand it to mean twice a month. So who’s right? Does ‘bimonthly’ mean every two months or twice a month?
Regardless of how conservative you are about language, both meanings are now correct. And confusing.
If you used them, you’d have to explain them to your reader. Does the bimonthly subscription come twice a month or every two months? This wastes time. Something a good copywriter simply doesn’t do.
Because the meanings of these words aren’t clear, they belong in the skunked words category … never use them.
Skunked words with a really bad odor …
Martha Barnet and Grant Barrett host my favorite language podcast A Way with Words. They’ve extended the meaning of skunked words beyond confusing or misused words. They include words with unsavory undertones … even if those undertones aren’t reasonable.
This type 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 a staffer who 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 1300's, to words meaning "miser" in Middle English. Nowhere is there any mention of racial meanings associated with the word.
However, since it’s 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 any 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 richness in expression because the need to erase these words from our writing?
Some people might say, “yes.” But I look at avoiding skunked words as an opportunity for you and me to work harder to find a better way of saying what we want to say.
Write with a nose for the odor of a skunk …
I’d love 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 better than any list.
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 … if it’s possibly confusing, ambiguous, or offensive … 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)
- oriental (considered by some an ethnic slur)
- jimmies (an ice cream topping, but a racial slur in 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”)
One last comment about skunked words: Avoiding skunked words is never about being politically correct. Avoid them because you risk confusing or offending your reader. Not because of some socially imposed restriction.
But sometimes you do need to be politically incorrect in copywriting. And that’s what we’ll chat about next week.
What words would you add to the skunked words list? Let us know what they are and why in the comment section below. I’d love to hear … and I know other readers would too.
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