SKUNKED TERM: a word or term that experiences confusing change in its meaning

When a word’s meaning changes dramatically to the point of being confusing, it is referred to as a skunked term.

In Bryan Garner’s, Garner’s Modern American Usage, he points out

“When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another–a phase that might take ten years or a hundred–it’s  likely to be the subject of dispute.”

I had stumbled upon this phrase, for instance, in researching the word decimate.  It originated in the Roman Empire as a term referring to the punishment of Roman troops that were found guilty of inappropriate activity.  They were divided into groups of ten and lots were drawn.  The one who drew the dreaded lot was beaten to death by his fellow soldiers.  Thus, one in ten of them was killed…leading to the term of decimation, stemming from the Latin word for ten.    For many years that concept continued, the word decimate referred to one-tenth (or a figure close to one-tenth) of a population being destroyed.

In more recent years, however, the term decimate has been broadened to mean any significant number, many times exceeding by multiples, the idea of one-tenth.   A town can said to be decimated by a tornado when one-third of it is destroyed.   The term is used incorrectly, however, when an entire population of people, animals, or vegetation is destroyed.   While the expanded numbers incorporated into decimate may suffice, total annihilation is not only a very confusing, but incorrect usage.

Thus, decimate is one of the terms eligible for the skunked term identification.   Its expanded (and incorrect) usage is confusing, particularly if someone understands the derivation of decimate as being related to the word for ten.

Language is used pretty loosely in today’s world.   There is, among writers and speakers, a casual attitude toward correctness, and even that concept is up for grabs.    There are schools of prescriptivists who insist upon close adherence to the rules of grammar and descriptivists who are more open to common usage which may bend the rules or even ignore them.   The result is some degree of confusion among wordsmiths and others who at least pay attention to language and its usage.

Those who were educated under systems which required adherence to rules of spelling, definition, grammar and punctuation find it hard to embrace the trends away from such practices.  It turns out that some of the “rules” never really existed, but were fabricated.  On the other hand, those who have come through more lenient educational systems which ignore, or play down the rules of language find it repressive and archaic to be concerned about such issues.   Expression, to them, is more important than grammatical perfection. The results can be seen in varying forms of writing, some of which exhibit traditional styles and others which are free-flowing and loose.

Thus, when terms which are classified as skunked terms come along, the confusion is understandable.  They are one part of a visible and significant transition taking place in our language.   Some of us are less excited about the transition than others.


Photo Credit: Wildlife Zone

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  1. Goofy’s comment is helpful in describing the descriptivist position I referenced. Clearly, the term is used, and has been used for some time, in a way that defies the original meaning. But there is no denying the origin which includes the “deci” syllable, clearly obtained from the Latin meaning “ten.” The usage to mean simply “a great number, etc.”, however, is the more common. To label it as “erroneous” would be a stretch. It is variant, but commonly accepted.

  2. “The only sense that’s ever been common in English is the figurative ‘to destroy a great number, proportion, or part of’, first found in the mid seventeenth century. Despite repeated claims that this sense is erroneous, on the grounds that decimate should only refer to a destruction of one-tenth, that is how the word is used. In fact, it seems to be the only way the word is used; despite the insistence of various usage critics, a real example of decimate meaning ‘to destroy one-tenth of’ has never to my knowledge been found in actual running text.”

    - OED editor at large Jesse Sheidlower

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