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One man's skunk may not smell bad to another

December, 2009

“Niggardly” was a politically incorrect mishap in the offing. In 1999, Caucasian David Howard, a top aide to Washington Mayor Anthony Williams, announced to a black colleague during a committee meeting “I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it’s not going to be a lot of money.”

Notwithstanding that “niggardly” means “miserly” and has no etymological connection to the N-word, Howard was forced to resign for uttering this nine-letter word, but subsequently reinstated and shifted to a different department. Howard wished he had used a different synonym such as “stingy.” He later stated, “I should have thought, this is an arcane word, and everyone may not know it.”

In a recent article in The New York Times, Jack Rosenthal called words such as “niggardly,” that look as if they have a particular meaning but mean something quite different, “phantonyms.” He cited members of this club: “noisome,” which doesn’t mean “noisy,” but rather “offensive,” “enormity,” which doesn’t mean “enormousness,” but “monstrous wickedness,” and “fulsome,” which does not mean “very full,” but rather “offensive to normal tastes.” Rosenthal says that “when careful writers … confront a shadowy phantonym, they’ll resist.” Hence Barack Obama’s use of “fulsome accounting” to mean “full” was both erroneous and sloppy.

In a similar vein, lexicographer Bryan A. Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage linguist states that “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.”

An example of such is the word “effete” that traditionally meant “worn out” or “barren” but increasingly is used by some people to mean “snobbishly sophisticated.”

Garner 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 best avoided.

The reality of what qualifies as a “shadowy phantonym,” or a “skunked” word is not as clear-cut as Rosenthal or Garner pretend.

Can anyone say definitively when a word has been “skunked”?

Garner includes in his list of skunked words, “decimate” and “hopefully,” whereas I regard the use of “decimate” to mean “kill one-tenth” 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.

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.

And who is to be the sine qua non arbiter on what qualifies as proper English? According to Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and other US dictionaries, “infer” means the same as “imply,” “peruse” means 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.” Alas, these liberal positions are heresy to some language observers.

Recently deceased language commentator William Safire started out as a rigid prescriptivist but even he acknowledged in his book In Love With Norma Loquendi that the masses represent the final arbiter of language: “The rules laid down by elites are to be respected … but in the end democracy, which goes by the name of common usage, will work its will. … When the population challenges the order over a period of time, Norma Loquendi – the everyday voice of the native speaker – is the heroine who changes the order and raises a new standard.”

Howard Richler’s latest book, Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words, will be published in March 2010 by Ronsdale Press.



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