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, or a word that becomes difficult to use due to other controversy surrounding the word.[1][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.

The term was coined by lexicographer Bryan A. Garner in his 2008 edition of 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 meaning of a text.[3]

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


"Decimate" used to mean 'to kill one in ten' (from the Roman practice of decimation), but now means 'to destroy' or 'to kill nine out of ten.'

"Hopefully" used to mean 'in a hopeful manner' but has come to mean 'it is hoped' since the early 1960s.[3][5][6]

Other examples include "niggardly", "Oriental", "data", and "media".[7]

The 2013 Oxford English Dictionary's definition of "literally" to include "figuratively"[8] and, towards 2014, the conflation of 'deep web' with 'dark web'.[9]

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.[10]


  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. ^ Perlman, Merrill (20 October 2014). "How common descriptors fall out of favor". Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  8. ^ Hawkes, Steve (13 August 2013). "Uproar as OED includes erroneous use of 'literally'". Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  9. ^ Solomon, Jane (6 May 2015). "The Deep Web vs. The Dark Web". Retrieved 26 May 2015.
  10. ^ Marsh, David (2015-01-16). "The meaning of 'moot' is a moot point – whichever variety of English you speak | Mind your language". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-07-27.