Word Matters Podcast

Skunked Words

Word Matters, episode 94

word matters podcast logo

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, words that stink. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Emily Brewster: Sometimes a word over time will take on a meaning that doesn't play very nicely with its original meaning, leaving a person who knows both meanings unsure what to do. Is the word still usable or is it ... skunked? Ammon is not bemused, or is he?

Ammon Shea: A little bit over a decade ago I was in a bookstore in Salt Lake City. I think it's the Sam Weller Bookstore, which is a really lovely, lovely used bookstore if you ever happen to find yourself in Salt Lake City. And I found this odd little book, which was a collection of typed, kind of onion-skin pages put into a small three-ring binder.

Ammon Shea: I chose it because at the beginning it said, "Property of Merriam-Webster, not to be removed from editorial floor." I don't know who removed it or when, but it ended up in a bookstore thousands of miles away. It was a kind of odd collection of things that for whatever reason, the editors at that time—it looked like it was from the 1940s—considered important enough that they had some typist working for the company type up various articles or list of words.

Ammon Shea: And the first one that I read, which really caught my eye, was essentially a reprint or a retyping so to speak, of an article from the Atlantic Magazine in 1930—something in which the author was talking about how 52% of college graduates, when taking a multiple choice test, picked the word invigorating as a synonym for enervating. And to me, this raises an interesting question because almost 100 years ago, we had, at least according to this one source, a majority of educated speakers of English using what is widely considered to be the wrong meaning of a word. And yet, neither we nor any other dictionary that I've seen enters this sense.

Ammon Shea: And there are many other cases where we do enter senses of words that people consider to be the "wrong sense." And we do so because a lot of people use the word that way. And so that raises the question for me, of why don't we define enervate as invigorate? I'm pointing an accusatory finger at the two definers who are in the room with me.

Emily Brewster: I will accept that accusatory finger pointing. And I will say that just because a number of college students answer this way on a survey, the word enervate is also just sorely underused. It's not a terribly common word.

Ammon Shea: As opposed to say, for instance, bemuse, which we define as "to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement"?

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Ammon Shea: Is bemused sufficiently more common, that that is why we enter it? I'm not questioning your judgment. Is that the deciding factor here?

Emily Brewster: Lexicographers—definers—are encountering many more examples of bemuse in its various meanings, including the disputed ones, than they are finding examples of enervate in published edited text. It's not really doing much.

Peter Sokolowski: Frequency is the answer, which it often is.

Emily Brewster: Yes. I think editors are not coming across the word enervate in published edited text very much at all.

Ammon Shea: In either a correct or an incorrect use.

Emily Brewster: I do have a personal list of entries to review, Ammon, and I can put that one on my list, but it would be at the bottom of a list of some terms that are also in need of review. Most of those terms are appropriately higher in the list.

Ammon Shea: That's a reasonable explanation. I think that doesn't work for the Oxford English dictionary because they've never paid attention to whether something is current usage or common usage. They really concern themselves with just everything.

Emily Brewster: All right—that's right. So get on them about this, not me.

Ammon Shea: Okay. I will hassle them about that, but it raises the further question of, if a word is evenly split between its correct and its incorrect usage, in actual honest-to-goodness usage, at what point does a word become skunked? At what point does a word become so unclear in meaning that by using it, you are of necessity obliged to stop the conversation and kind of explain which of the senses you mean, the correct usage, or the widely used incorrect sense.

Ammon Shea: I feel that bemuse has kind of entered that territory because it's very difficult to tell from context alone whether one means "to make confused" or "to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement."

Emily Brewster: Some of our listeners may not know this disputed usage about bemuse because bemuse is such an excellent example of a skunked word. Its older meaning is ...

Ammon Shea: "To make confused," though that's not its oldest meaning. Its oldest meaning was "to be concerned with the muses," the literal Greek muses. I think Dryden used it that way, and Alexander Pope, but that fell off the radar pretty quickly. And it's "to make confused" that is the traditional sense of bemuse.

Emily Brewster: Which makes more sense. So even in relation to the sense having to do with the Greek muses, the muse may be the same as in the word amusement, but bemused does not come from amuse.

Ammon Shea: But it's close enough that people have been using it that way for a number of decades in great numbers, sufficiently so that we entered this sense "to cause to have feelings of wry or tolerant amusement." And again, this is not a case of us countenancing incorrect English. This is a case of, we are obliged to faithfully record the language as it is used. There is widespread and significant use of the word in this manner.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, absolutely. And to me, this poses a problem because a word like decimate, which also has disputed usages, in context it's always clear what it means. And that's why for me bemuse is a word that I just don't use because I'm afraid of this ambiguity.

Ammon Shea: When you use decimate, nobody is going to think you mean "to kill one of every 10," unless they want to be a jerk. In which case, they will pretend to think that. It is always clear by context. I feel very similarly about the word nonplussed, which could mean either "confused" or kind of "unbothered or unimpressed." And I feel like it's just not worth the hassle of using these words anymore, so I kind of just forget about them.

Emily Brewster: Now, Ammon, you introduced the idea of these words being categorized as "skunked words." That's a term that was coined by Bryan Garner of Garner's Modern English Usage, writer of books on legal usage and also English usage, general English usage. And my understanding is that he coined this word specifically to refer to this category of words that has one meaning that is fully established, and then a new meaning develops.

Emily Brewster: And one group of people continues to cling to the original older meaning—typically not really original as we all know, given the history of words—but they cling to this meaning that was the first one they knew to be established. And then this other meaning develops and the people who know the new meaning have no idea that the older meaning exists and the people who know the older meaning and the newer meaning are completely appalled at the fact that this newer meaning is a departure from the older meaning. There are people who feel that they cannot use these words to communicate anymore because it will cause confusion or utter despair, given whatever the audience is.

Ammon Shea: That's an excellent, excellent background on the history. And I think it is a very useful term. I would say though, however, that in almost all cases, the English language just brushes past the concerns of people who say that, skunked or not skunked. And it just runs roughshod over all of our thoughts and feelings and the words just take on meanings regardless of whether we want them to or not.

Ammon Shea: And most words don't get skunked. A classic example is obnoxious, which I think Ambrose Bierce [addressed] in Write it Right, in 1909. Ambrose Bierce was this kind of lovely dyspeptic and acerbic writer. He wrote a book called The Devil's Dictionary and he also wrote a book of actual usage, which was just cantankerous kinds of opinions of his, and he, and a number of other usage writers in the early 20th century, really did not appreciate it when people used the word obnoxious to mean "irritating," because to them obnoxious meant "exposed to danger," which was very much the traditional 19th century meaning.

Emily Brewster: Can we pause there? And I would like an illustration of that older use of obnoxious, which has completely fallen away. It means "subject to danger." So for example, your child is at the cabinet and getting out of chemical and you say, "You're obnoxious! You are exposed to danger!" I've never used that sense of obnoxious.

Ammon Shea: The OED has a lot of great citations. "We are obnoxious to so many accidents." "They render themselves obnoxious to the justice of God." These are all 18th century uses. "I am indeed obnoxious to disasters." So this is a very distinct sense from the one in which we use it now. In the early 20th century, people were saying that this word is skunked because it means this and it means this. And in fact, it now just does not mean "exposed to danger," for the most part. That usage has just fallen away completely.

Ammon Shea: So I think it's possible that even though we right now feel like, well, bemused and nonplussed and enervate, even that these meanings are inextricably bound together and confusing and you just can't tell, I think in 100 years, people are going to say, "Ha, they used to use bemused to mean "confused." Isn't that weird? Nobody uses it that way anymore." I think that is the likely outcome for most of these words.

Emily Brewster: I agree. I think that, especially for nonplussed and bemused, I agree. I think they are headed toward solely carrying their newer meanings.

Peter Sokolowski: And so if we're living in this period where both coexist, so we're kind of in a transitional phase, it's interesting to me ... and I love this term skunked, I think it's useful for exactly identifying this kind of thing. It's interesting to think of the idea that you've both expressed, which is that somehow the authority comes from antiquity, whatever it originally meant, that's the right one, which, I have to say, that has been the reflex of lexicographers for most of the history of dictionary making.

Peter Sokolowski: If you look at the definitions of words that are based on Latin, like this one, definitions from the 1600s and 1700s and even later, often the definition is really a translation of the Latin. And so you get someone like Webster or Johnson saying, "Well, this is what this word means. It can only mean this because that's what it meant in Latin," which of course really is not the way language works, and we all know that.

Peter Sokolowski: And yet, the authority of that antiquity seems to hold. People criticize the use of literally, the word literally, in its figurative sense. As in, "I literally died laughing," where it's clear that you don't mean literally in the literal sense and people really notice that one, they hate that one. And yet there are so many other words that are used in that way to convey meaningless intensity to a sentence without adding meaning. And we don't object to all of them. It's just, we object to the ones we know about or notice.

Emily Brewster: Modern lexicographers are deeply committed—

Peter Sokolowski: Of course.

Emily Brewster: ... to writing definitions that reflect actual usage, and modern lexicographers also have access to collections of usage, to corpora, that show these words in their natural contexts, in the situations that they are actually used in. Johnson and Webster didn't really have much of that.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course, exactly. So harking back to Latin really was the job that they perceived themselves to have. And that's no longer true for us.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster, more on skunked words ahead. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merriam-webster.com by using the promo code "matters" at checkout. That's matters, M-A-T-T-E-R-S at shop.merriam-webster.com.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea, do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski, join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look the history and definition of one word, available at Merriam-Webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at NEPM.org.

Emily Brewster: Our conversation about skunked words continues.

Ammon Shea: I still feel that enervate should have the extended sense defined. That's a view of mine that is probably not widely shared, perhaps not by professional lexicographers. And I'm almost certain not shared widely by our audience. I think that it's hypocritical of us as ostensible catalogers of the language to overly refine where we place our gaze.

Ammon Shea: And I think that we say, "Well, we only do edited prose." I feel like we're doing a disservice to the spoken language. And I feel like there's so much of the language that's so rich and so varied that we just ignore because it's just so fleeting and evanescent, it just comes up in conversation. It just comes up in unedited text. I feel like enervate is kind of part of that. It's part of the messiness and beauty of English.

Emily Brewster: I agree. And I do think that it's really interesting that this document you found, which I only learned about in this podcast minutes ago, it's shocking to me that you found that and that I'm only learning about it now. And I really want to see it. Maybe you can take some pictures and we can post some pictures with the transcript.

Peter Sokolowski: And I'd like to posit that I think the greater crime here is that this information leaked rather than what was actually carried in the information itself.

Emily Brewster: Well, I do think that if editors had been noticing this use of enervate since, say, the 1940s, you are right, this should have been already included as a meaning in the dictionary. If they were encountering so much evidence of it—spoken word is absolutely important—but there are limitations of staff and of just the amount of time that it takes to—

Ammon Shea: Of course.

Emily Brewster: ... research the meaning of a word. In some ways, most importantly, we limit our defining practices to published edited text also as a way to just contain the scope of the task. If we are really—

Ammon Shea: I agree, absolutely.

Emily Brewster: ... going to catalog all of the words that are in spoken English in all of their great variation, we would never sleep and we would never get to, I don't know, P.

Ammon Shea: Literally and figuratively.

Emily Brewster: I did ...

Ammon Shea: I mean, in the literal sense. I agree with all of those things, with, of course, the aforementioned caveats. And here's one of the things, though, that I don't agree with, which is that I'm not disagreeing with you per se, but I do want to bring up, we talk about lexicographers. We focus our attention on published, edited prose, and that's true to an extent. There are other lives that these words have that we're ignoring and text is one, as we know it, newspapers, that's one form. And then we're kind of expanding our view from newspapers and literature to include things such as Twitter.

Ammon Shea: So now we're broadening our view of what we think of as text and maybe edited prose. There are other significances these words have, and for instance, tests are one, and I am willing to bet that enervate has a far greater percentage of use in standardized tests for high school students than it does in any real world application.

Ammon Shea: So it's familiar to people, but it's not going to come up in any corpora of use because we're not scanning tests, but I'm willing to bet that 75 to 80% of high school students at some point will come across enervate repeatedly because it's a perfect test word. You want to catch these kids and find out if they know what the word means.

Ammon Shea: So I think it's heavily overrepresented in that. So it does have valence for people, even if they're not using it, even if they're not seeing it and reading it. So I think we should, in some sense, pay attention to words that have this secondary life outside of written words.

Emily Brewster: That's a very interesting point. It puts it in the category of—masticate is a word that comes to my mind, that I think I actually—

Ammon Shea: Absolutely.

Emily Brewster: ... learned that word while taking the SATs and then went home and looked it up. I'd never heard that word before. How many millions of people take these standardized tests every year? And so we could make a point of say reading and marking some standardized tests and adding terms to our files or counting that as evidence, that would be a procedural point that we could make.

Ammon Shea: I think that for instance, people will see the word conflagration in natural use, but they will not see the word conflagrate, except in tests. As a noun, it's fairly common, though not common-common, but it's common enough that people will recognize it. But I think as a verb, it exists mainly in standardized tests.

Peter Sokolowski: You mean conflagration, meaning like "a fire"?

Ammon Shea: Yes.

Emily Brewster: Do you know, a word that I feel is skunked for me personally is the word ambivalent, because I know this word to mean "feeling two ways about something, feeling conflicted about something": "I am ambivalent about whether I should spend time on the entry for enervate, or I should continue my revision of these other terms I'm working on." But I know that ambivalent is used by some people to mean "not caring either way." And so when I use the word ambivalent, I tend to include other information to make it clear that what I mean is "torn." I mean "conflicted." I don't mean that I don't care.

Ammon Shea: So now here's the question I have for both of you since you are trained lexicographers, do you code switch when you're talking among different groups? Do you change if you're, say, working at Merriam and you're on the floor and you're talking to a definer, do you think to yourself, "Oh, okay. I don't have to contextualize ambivalent"? I just kind of use it in a natural sense, but then when you're speaking to somebody who's not steeped in lexicography, that you feel like, "Oh, maybe I do have to contextualize this word." Or do you just contextualize it in all cases?

Emily Brewster: No, I definitely pick and choose depending on my audience. Certainly, if I'm talking to my husband, I'm not going to contextualize it. And if I'm talking to other people who I think are familiar with it in the way that I am, then no, I will not contextualize it.

Peter Sokolowski: I think we all code switch to some extent, consciously or not. And certainly that's true for me. And I remember in the office, hearing colleagues use words that I have never heard spoken out loud, in a really technical, specific way. And I realize, "Oh yes, this is a place where you can do that. You can just use these words in conversation."

Emily Brewster: I don't drop the word definiendum into my everyday conversations. (It means "the word being defined.")

Peter Sokolowski: But that was a word I heard quite frequently in the office. Absolutely.

Emily Brewster: Ammon, do you code switch?

Ammon Shea: I do. And sometimes I forget which direction to go. And I've noticed when I sometimes will contextualize things for my wife. And she gets really annoyed at me because she was a lexicographer decades ago, so she knows far more about this than I do. And sometimes I find myself explaining words to her and she just gives me this look that indicates I forgot to turn my code switch to the right setting today. She is so bemused by me.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at NEPM.org, and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-Webster.com.

Emily Brewster: Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and me. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster and New England Public Media.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!