Weasel words and skunked words

Time for a recap of my recent writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Near the end of April, I took a look at “skunked” words. This is a term I came across first in Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage; it refers to words whose meaning or usage is so disputed that using them is likely to bother or distract readers. Among these words are enormity, fulsome, and “Hopefully disinterested”:

Words are slippery. Their meanings can mutate and multiply, differing according to where and how they are used. The word defence, for instance, will suggest different things to a sportsperson, a psychologist, a lawyer, a doctor, and a military strategist. Our relationship with a given word depends on our history with it and what it connotes for us. Yet for the most part we can communicate straightforwardly with others, since context supplies information that reduces the chances of misunderstanding. Now and then, however, the signal turns to noise. [more]

May was Macmillan Dictionary’s month of business English, so a few of my articles fall under this category. My particular focus is on business jargon; like any other kind of jargon, it is inevitable and not inherently objectionable. However, it can also degenerate into near-meaningless gobbledygook (a phenomenon I’ve written about on this blog before). “The business of gobbledegook” is a short assessment of this kind of language and the problems it can generate:

When we communicate in a business environment, obscure jargon is an occupational hazard. Given how specialised are many industries and work environments, it’s natural that people will use a certain amount of terminology that won’t always make much sense to outsiders. The trouble is when this language is used in inappropriate contexts, or when it becomes so vague and jumbled as to be impenetrable even to its target audience. [more]

That article includes a few lines of parody-gobbledygook; next came a full article of it, “Critical learnings, going forward”, which I’ve already introduced here. A competition was held to translate the text into more meaningful English, and the submissions were a delight to read.

My follow-up post, “Weaselly recognised”, continues the theme by examining how weasel words, jargon and periphrasis are sometimes used to euphemise awkward facts. It explains why this is not helpful, and stresses some of the benefits of plain language:

Plain English is a frank and straightforward style that does not lend itself readily to expressing longwinded nonsense and hiding unpleasant facts. It is well suited to conveying meaning clearly and without guile, thereby showing a measure of respect for people’s intelligence, feelings, and capacity for dealing with difficult truths and situations – not “challengeful reality-based outcomes, going forward”. Our brains do a lot of hard work decoding language into sense; in business, it doesn’t pay to multiply this workload. [more]

Tucked in among these posts is one about the word friend and how online life has influenced its meanings. “Your flexible ‘friend’” describes how the word

straddles the digital and physical environments in a way that reflects its great flexibility and complex usage. Over the last few years its use online, particularly in social networks, has popularised the transitive verb friend . . . along with derived forms like defriend . . . and unfriend. . . . We all adapt to this shifting terrain in different ways, redefining friend and recategorising friendships to suit our habits, purposes, and feelings. And although our online activities have brought new dimensions to the word friend, the disputes and discussions about what it means are just a new phase – and perhaps an amplification – of age-old debates. [more]

This article was also published on Ragan.com under the title “The many meanings of ‘friend’”.

You’ll find all my articles for Macmillan Dictionary Blog on this page.

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7 Responses to Weasel words and skunked words

  1. The Ridger says:

    I question the “confusion” that hopefully allegedly generates. In its so-called “older” use, was it ever a sentence adverb? Did people really write “hopefully she left on time” to mean “she left on time and in a hopeful manner”? Perhaps. No one does now. In that sense it always modifies a verb directly and usually a quotative or action – he looked up hopefully, she said hopefully – in the predicate. At the beginning, it’s always a sentence adverb. Until these people start misconstruing – or complaining about adverbs such as “frankly, honestly, fortunately” and so on – I refuse to stop using hopefully. They all invariably know what I mean, anyway, which rather shoots down the complaint in the first place.

  2. Stan says:

    The Ridger: I don’t believe it causes any real confusion. Some people cling to the word’s restricted sense, and reject the more familiar one. I’ve seen peeving web pages that point out the existence and supposed primacy of the former usage, and some commenters will instantly convert, retrospectively aghast at their ‘lapse’. This is a shame. My aim in the article linked above was to bring attention to the two meanings and to point out that using the word might bother certain readers.

    Google Books shows how popular the restricted sense used to be. Some people still prefer that it be used this way; I don’t, but I’ve used it thus on rare occasions in my writing. The AP Stylebook is adamant that “It means in a hopeful manner. Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us or we hope.” I find this hugely unhelpful. My attitude is summed up in this Twitter comment.

  3. I read Weaselly Recognised and I was rather shocked at some of the LGA’s “verboten” words. While many of the words listed would grace any Bullshit Bingo card, one or two do have specific and understandable meanings. Take baseline: for me that has a specific and well understood financial meaning.

    Some of the alternatives provided to other words are simply dreadful.

    As for original or “minor” word meanings I love the now redundant use of the word pure to describe dog crap.

  4. Tim says:

    It’s interesting that you talk about “friend” in a verb sense. This week’s AWAD (http://wordsmith.org/awad/index.html) is focusing (focussing?) on nouns that have become verbs; and the introduction to this week’s focus opened with that very word as an example! :)

    I love our language because words can be misconstrued within many different contexts and areas of specialisation — it is simply a part of the variety and diversity of having so many cultures and subcentres all speaking technically the same language but turning the writhing mass that it has become into semi-coherent gobbledegook on occasion. ;)

    I’m all for introducing new words into the language, and the evolving of words to take on variant meanings and usage. But one thing that gets to me is when people don’t treat the verb “to text” as a regular verb. It should be! I thought I didn’t have any language pet peeves until I started thinking about inherently “wrong” usage, and remembered that particular backbone-itching one. >.<

    BTW, hi Stan. It's been a rather long time since I read the blog or left a comment. Life simply doesn't slow down for anyone. :/

  5. Stan says:

    Jams: Yes, that’s the problem with a lot of these lists of “banned words” or “phrases to avoid”: they cut too bluntly, regurgitating Orwell in soundbites instead of allowing for the occasional utility of clichés and buzzwords.

    Tim: Hi again, and welcome back! I hope you’ve been keeping well. That’s a coincidence about AWAD. I don’t subscribe, but it’s fun to think we were circling in the same wordy waters around the same time, invisible to one another. Text as a past tense form used to bother me a little, but I knew I was going to keep hearing it so I talked myself into accepting it. Still won’t use it, mind. I like and agree heartily with your point about the diversity of the language – many Englishes mixing and mingling the world over.

  6. Nancy says:

    Hey I found your blog when I was searching “skunked words” on Google. I heard the phrase on the public radio show, A Way with Words (aired June 20, 2011). You can find the podcast on iTunes; it’s definitely worth a listen!

  7. Stan says:

    Hi Nancy, thanks for your visit. I like A Way With Words but I haven’t listened to that episode. Will do so later – thanks for the tip!

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