Skunked term

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A skunked term is a word that becomes difficult to use because it is transitioning from one meaning to another, perhaps inconsistent or even opposite, usage,[1] or a word that becomes difficult to use due to other controversy surrounding the word.[2] Purists may insist on the old usage, while descriptivists may be more open to newer usages. Readers may not know which sense is meant especially when prescriptivists insist on a meaning that accords with interests that often conflict.

The term was coined by lexicographer Bryan A. Garner in Garner's Modern American Usage and has since been adopted by some other style guides.[2]


Garner recommends avoiding such terms if their use may distract readers from the intended meaning of a text.[3]

Some terms, such as "fulsome", may become skunked, and then eventually revert to their original meaning over time.[4]


  • "Hopefully" used to mean "in a hopeful manner" but has come to mean "it is hoped" since the early 1960s.[3][5][6]
  • "Niggardly" means "miserly" or "parsimonious", but is rarely used in modern English because it is easily confused with the slur "nigger", despite their separate etymologies.[7]
  • Other examples include "Oriental", "data", and "media".[8]
  • "Literally" is widely used to mean "figuratively".[9]
  • The "deep web" is often confused with the "dark web".[10]
  • A "moot point" in British English has historically meant a point that is worth debating, but the meaning is shifting towards that in US English of a point that is irrelevant or academic.[11]
  • "Biweekly" has come to mean either "occurring every two weeks" or "occurring twice a week". The same ambiguity exists for the word "bimonthly".[12][13]
  • "Disinterested" is widely used to mean "uninterested" whereas the primary meaning is "unbiased".[14]
  • "Humbled" originally meant "be brought low" but is often used to mean "be honored."[15]
  • "It's all downhill from here" originally meant to become easier but is widely used to mean becoming worse or more difficult.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, 2009, p. 306f
  2. ^ a b Ben Yagoda, How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them, ISBN 1594488487, 2013, p. 82 and passim.
  3. ^ a b Brenner, Erin (13 March 2014). "The Politics of Writing: Should You Use Skunked Terms?". Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  4. ^ Brenner, Erin (22 February 2012). "The Story Behind "Fulsome"". Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  5. ^ Liberman, Mark. "The H-word". Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  6. ^ Beaujon, Andrew (19 April 2012). "Hopefully, this is the last we'll write about 'hopefully'". Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  7. ^ "Opinion | In a Word". The New York Times. 1999-01-30. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-07-12.
  8. ^ Perlman, Merrill (20 October 2014). "How common descriptors fall out of favor". Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  9. ^ Hawkes, Steve (13 August 2013). "Uproar as OED includes erroneous use of 'literally'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  10. ^ Solomon, Jane (6 May 2015). "The Deep Web vs. The Dark Web". Retrieved 26 May 2015.
  11. ^ Marsh, David (16 January 2015). "The meaning of 'moot' is a moot point – whichever variety of English you speak | Mind your language". The Guardian. Retrieved 2018-07-27.
  12. ^ "Definition of BIWEEKLY". Retrieved 2021-02-14.
  13. ^ "You Know What's BS!? The Word Bimonthly". Retrieved 2021-04-16.
  14. ^ " "Disinterested definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary".
  15. ^ Baggini, Julian (18 May 2013). "'I feel so humble' – the common cry of heroes and villains". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 April 2022.
  16. ^ "BE (ALL) DOWNHILL | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary". 2022-05-25. Retrieved 2022-05-31.