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Who Decides What Words Mean?

The public decides the meaning of words, not the dictionary or lawmakers.

Key points

  • Words can lose their usefulness when people no longer agree about what they mean.
  • Disagreements can lead to words becoming "skunked."
  • Even scientific terms can be skunked if people refuse to accept them.
  • Disagreements about the meaning of words have become common in our current political climate.
Source: Torli /FreeImages
Words that lose their meaning become "skunked"
Source: Torli /FreeImages

Does “biweekly” mean twice a week, or once every two weeks? If you’re uncertain, a trip to an online dictionary like Merriam-Webster’s won’t help. Both meanings are provided, along with a note explaining that “This ambiguity has been in existence for nearly a century and a half and cannot be eliminated by the dictionary.”

What happened to biweekly—and, for that matter, bimonthly? The simple answer is that disagreement over their referents became so widespread as to render them meaningless. The lexicographer Brian Garner describes such words as having been “skunked.” As I explain in my book on miscommunication, this has happened to many English terms.

“Inflammable,” for example, means “combustible,” but people mistake the first syllable of the word for the prefix in, which means “not” in many other words, such as “invisible.” The potential danger caused by confusion over whether something is or isn’t flammable is so great that the word has largely dropped out of common usage: it has become skunked.

Cosmic Disagreement

How about the meaning of “planet”? This one should be easy; it’s an object orbiting a star. However, the number of planets in the solar system has fluctuated as exploration of our cosmic neighborhood has progressed. The number was fixed at six after the Copernican Revolution and then expanded to seven with the discovery of Uranus in 1781. But twenty years after that, astronomers began to detect additional bodies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The number of planets soon swelled to eleven as Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta were added, in turn, to the celestial pantheon.

Astronomers went on to discover many more objects in the so-called asteroid belt, and Ceres and its brethren were eventually demoted to the status of “minor planets.” The discovery of Neptune in 1846 and Pluto in 1930 brought the number to nine, and for seventy-five years, everyone knew what a planet was and how many our solar system contained.

However, the 2005 discovery of Eris, an object beyond the orbit of Pluto, caused astronomers to reconsider the latter's status. The outer solar system, it seems, contains many small bodies, and Pluto may be more accurately considered one of these Kuiper belt objects than a planet in its own right. A ruling in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) demoted Pluto to the status of a “dwarf planet,” along with Eris and several other tiny worlds—those discovered in the far reaches of the solar system.

Nearly twenty years later, however, the IAU’s ruling remains controversial. The public at large has never really accepted it; several “Save Pluto” movements were launched, and even many planetary scientists disagree with the IAU. For decades, any schoolchild could, if asked, confidently answer “Nine!” in response to how many planets orbit the sun. Now, the best answer they can provide is “It’s complicated.” The word “planet” appears to have been skunked.

The Problem with -Gate

Back on Earth, debate continues about the meaning of a variety of terms, several of which have appeared prominently in recent news cycles. For example, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem recently admitted that she shot her young dog Cricket because it was “untrainable.” Almost reflexively, the media dubbed this “puppygate,” even though the same term had been employed in connection with a 2019 controversy on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, as well as the 2015 Hugo Awards.

The lazy journalistic tendency to label incidents as some form of “gate” has largely skunked the suffix’s original meaning, when “Watergate” served as the umbrella term for crimes committed by the Nixon administration. Wikipedia includes several hundred “gates” in its list of scandals and controversies; the syllable is applied equally to consequential events, such as Ukrainegate (leading to the 2019 impeachment of President Trump) and to the trivial, as with envelopegate (an error made during the 2017 Academy Awards). “Gate” is well on its way to being skunked.

Legislating Meaning

But even a word that has a well-understood meaning runs the risk of becoming skunked if people can’t agree on whether it applies to a particular instance. Consider “genocide,” a term that was carefully defined in the United Nation’s Genocide Convention of 1948. That precision hasn’t stopped people from arguing about whether specific instances of “ethnic cleansing” rise to the level of the destruction of a nation or ethnic group. It's worth noting that both sides in the Israel-Hamas conflict have employed this term.

Or consider “antisemitism,” a term coined in 1860 by Moritz Steinschneider, and one that has been defined in various ways over time. On May 1, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023 (H.R. 6090). It requires the Department of Education to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of the term. The vote was 320 to 91, with 70 Democrats and 21 Republicans voting against it. Although larger political issues were involved, the bill highlights whether semantic issues are best addressed through legislation.

At the end of the day, it’s not dictionary editors, scientific organizations, the media, or governments who decide what words mean. The meaning of a term cannot be promoted by fiat or through a governmental decree. People employ words that make useful distinctions and are liable to abandon them when they no longer do so. The disputes raging at present serve as a stark reminder of this fact.


Kreuz, R. (2023). Failure to communicate: Why we misunderstand what we hear, read, and see. Prometheus Books.

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