I recently came across the phrase skunked words or skunked terms to describe words for which the usage is in flux, evolving from the original meaning to one that may differ so much from the original that its meaning in context is ambiguous. Thanks Josh Bernoff of Without Bullshit.
The word Bernoff referred to when he introduced the term was fulsome. The original meaning for fulsome was copious or abundant. Over time, however, the word has been used more often to convey excessive or ingratiating flattery. Quite a different matter.
Bernoff cited three recent examples of politicians using fulsome, presumably with its original meaning. Because of the shift in meaning, however, the statements, when read with the negative connotations the term more recently conveys, may seem either humorous or sarcastic. Take a look at Bernoff’s examples below:
First, Sally Yates, former Deputy District Attorney, in her opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 8, said
I also want to note that I intend my answers today to be as fulsome and comprehensive as possible while respecting my legal and ethical boundaries. As the Subcommittee understands, many of the topics of interest today concern classified information that I cannot address in this public setting, either directly or indirectly.
Then Republican Senator Corker commented on President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey this way:
It is essential that ongoing investigations are fulsome and free of political interference until their completion.
Finally, Secretary Tillerson had described a call regarding Syria between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin this way:
It was a very constructive call that the two presidents had. It was a very, very fulsome call, a lot of detailed exchanges. So we’ll see where we go from here.
The phrase, skunked terms, appeared first in the Dictionary of Modern American Usage which included these examples: data, decimate, effete, enormity, fulsome, and transpire.
Those examples got me thinking about other problematic words. A few months ago I pointed out my dilemma about whether to use gantlet or gauntlet when referring to a figurative double line through which someone must pass with difficulty. I chose gantlet, the word with the original meaning of a form of punishment involving people armed with sticks forming two lines through which a person being punished must run in a piece I submitted to an anthology, OASIS Journal 2016. In contrast, the original meaning of gauntlet is an armored glove.
I’ve had my copy of the anthology around for several months, but hadn’t looked at my submission in it until this evening. I guess I’m not surprised that the editor changed my choice, gantlet, to the now acceptable alternate, gauntlet. But I wonder if she knew that my word choice is historically correct. Or am I really a linguistically pedantic snob?
I hereby propose both gantlet and gauntlet be added to the list of skunked terms.