Word Nerd: Skunk’s aroma wafts through English words

If a reader peruses this article, should I be a) disinterested, or b) nonplussed? It depends on the meaning ascribed to the three italicized words. Let me explain.

Traditionally, “disinterested” meant impartial, but nowadays the majority of people use it to mean “not interested.” I regret this modern usage because an important distinction is being lost and I would hope that hockey referees are disinterested in the traditional rather than the new sense.

“Nonplussed,” similarly, has gone from meaning “bewildered” to “unfazed.” This was the sense U.S. President Barack Obama used when he stated last year, “I’ve been really happy by how nonplussed they’ve [his daughters] been” by media scrutiny. Also, while the original 15th-century meaning of “peruse” was “examine carefully,” by the 16th century it was often used merely as a synonym for “read.”

This also asks the question (please don’t resort to begging questions), how long do we insist that the older meanings should prevail?

Truth be told, there is no simple answer because there is no definitive arbiter on what qualifies as proper English. According to Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and other American dictionaries, many new meanings are acceptable. For example, “peruse” can mean not only to “examine carefully” but to “read over in a casual manner”; “disinterested” can mean “not interested” as well as “impartial”; and “enormity” can mean the same as “enormousness.” Some dictionaries and many learned usage commentators regard these positions as linguistic heresy.

Lexicographer Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage states that “when a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another—a phase that might take 10 years or a hundred—it’s likely to be the subject of dispute.” He adds that “a word is most hotly disputed in the middle of the process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers.”

He characterizes these disputed words as “skunked” and therefore best avoided. Hence, although there might be some ancient pedant who believes that “egregious” should still mean remarkably good, as it literally means in Latin “above the flock,” the fact remains that it has not been used in a positive sense since 1845 and will not make the “skunked” list.

The reality, of what qualifies as a “skunked” word is not as clear-cut as Garner pretends.

Can anyone say definitively when a word has been “skunked”? Garner includes in his list of skunked words “decimate” and “hopefully” whereas I, and many others, regard the use of “decimate” to mean “kill one-10th” and the exclusive use of “hopefully” to mean only “in a hopeful manner” and not “one hopes,” or “it is to be hoped,” to be hopelessly moribund.

Some prescriptive language commentators decry the use of “jejune” to mean “childish” and point out that change in meaning stemmed from the mistaken belief that the word stemmed from the French word for “young” jeune and the Latin juvenus. Notwithstanding this mistaken belief, dictionaries accept “childish” as one of the meanings of “jejune.” Similarly, some language purists argue that the word “dilemma’’ should only be used to refer to a choice between two unpleasant alternatives and not a plight or predicament, but most dictionaries allow for this latter sense.

Also, we must acknowledge that some usages that might not be acceptable in British English are acceptable in North American English. Examples of such are the verbs “careen” and “aggravate.” The former (notwithstanding that it should be “career”) is common in North American English, just as using aggravate to mean “annoy” is well established in Canada and the U.S. Relative to the use of aggravate to mean “annoy,” Wynford Hicks advises in Quite Literally, “Use with care since purists disapprove of the second {annoy} usage.” The reality, however, is that this usage has been entrenched in North America for many decades.

In any case, I’m content as long as you’re not disinterested in this article in the modern sense.

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