Skunked Terms and Scorched Earth

A recent Twitter exchange about the term beg the question got me thinking again about the notion of skunked terms. David Ehrlich said that at some point the new sense of beg the question was going to become the correct one, and I said that that point had already come and gone.

If you’re not familiar with the issue, it’s that begging the question is traditionally a type of circular reasoning. Increasingly, though, it’s being used in the newer sense of ‘raising the question’ or ‘demanding that we ask the question’. A couple of years ago, Stan Carey found that the newer sense makes up about 90 percent of the hits in the GloWbE corpus (and the percentage is even higher if you exclude mentions and only count uses).

On Language Log Neal Goldfarb wrote that the term should be avoided, either because it’s likely to be misunderstood or because it will incur the wrath of sticklers. On Twitter, many others agreed that the term was skunked, to borrow a term from Bryan Garner.

In his Modern American Usage, Garner writes, “When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another . . . it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. . . . A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. . . . The word has become ‘skunked.'”

Many people find this a useful idea, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way. On the one hand, it seems helpful to identify usage problems that may attract ire or create confusion. But on the other hand, it’s often used as sort of a trump card in usage debates. It doesn’t matter which use is right or wrong—the word or phrase is now tarnished and can never be used again (at least until the sticklers all die off and everyone forgets what the fuss was about).

And in many cases it feels like a sort of scorched-earth policy: if we can’t use this term the way we think is best, then nobody should use it. Better to ruin the term for everyone than to let it fall into the hands of the enemy. After all, who’s doing the skunking? The people who use a term in its new sense and are usually unaware of the debate, or the people who use it in the old sense and are raising a stink about the change?

In some cases, though, it’s not clear what declaring a word skunked accomplishes. For instance, Garner says that data is skunked because some people object to its use with a plural verb, while others object to its use with a singular. Either way, you might annoy someone. But scientists can’t just stop writing about data—they’re going to have to pick a side.

And sometimes, as with beg the question, it almost seems silly to keep calling a new use skunked. If upwards of 90 percent of the uses of a term are in the new sense (and I suspect it’s even higher in speech), then the battle is all but over. We can’t realistically say that you should avoid using beg the question because it’s ambiguous, because it’s always clear in context. And the new sense certainly isn’t unclear or unfamiliar—how could it be if it’s the one that most people are using? The old sense may be unclear to the uninitiated, but that’s always been the case, because it’s a rather technical term. The new use doesn’t change that.

So what it really comes down to is the fact that a very small but very vocal minority don’t like the new use and would rather say that it’s been ruined for everyone than to admit defeat. The question is, should that be enough reason to declare the term off-limits to everybody? Many editors and usage commentators argue that there’s no harm in avoidance, but Geoff Nunberg calls this rationale “the pedant’s veto“: “It doesn’t matter if you consider a word to be correct English. If some sticklers insist that it’s an error, the dictionaries and style manuals are going to counsel you to steer clear of it to avoid bringing down their wrath.” (Arnold Zwicky, somewhat less charitably, calls this rationale “crazies win“.) Nunberg says that this sort of avoidance can be a wise course of action, but other times it seems a bit ridiculous.

Consider, for example, the Economist style guide, which is often mocked for its avoidance of split infinitives. It reads, “Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.” Who are all these people who find split infinitives so annoying? And even if there are still a few people who cling to this non-rule, why should everybody else change just to make them happy? Indeed, it seems that most other usage guides have moved on at this point.

Perhaps the biggest problem with declaring a term skunked is that it’s not clear what the criteria are. How many sticklers does it take to skunk a term? How contentious does the debate need to be? And how do we know when it stops being skunked?

I have to wonder, though, if the entire notion of skunked terms is ultimately self-defeating. The people who are most likely to heed a warning to avoid a contentious usage are also the people who are most likely to adhere to traditional usage in the first place. The people who use beg the question in the new sense, for example, are most likely unaware not only of the traditional meaning but also of the fact that there’s a debate about its meaning. If the traditionalists all start avoiding the term, then all that will remain will be the new use. By declaring a term skunked and saying it should be avoided, it could be that all we really accomplish is to drive the old use out even faster.

Ultimately, the question is, how much do we care about the opinions of that small but vocal minority? Maybe it’s just the contrarian streak in me, but I hate giving such a small group such disproportionate power over the language we all use. I’d rather spend my efforts trying to change opinions on usage than trying to placate the peevers. But I have to admit that there’s no easy answer. If there were, there’d be no reason to call a term skunked in the first place.