How ‘millennial’ got skunked
In July, Twitter user Mike Mac announced a new browser extension that changes all instances of the word “millennials” to “adults under 40.” He included screenshots of the extension in action, saying that this little change “really improved [his] twitter feed.”
This is not the first extension that swaps out one word for another — it’s not even the first to do so with the word “millennials.” Predecessors include Millennials to Snake People, which, as advertised, replaces all instances of “millennials” with “Snake People,” and Millennials Begone! which replaces “millennials” with “pesky whipper-snappers.”
It’s not a mystery why these extensions have gained so much traction. Millennials, blamed for killing everything from the American Dream to marmalade, are keen to point out the absurdity of it all.
As an adult under 40, I sometimes use the word “millennial” to describe myself or my peers, and when I use it, I do so in a neutral way. To me, it conveys information about a period in which a person was born (early 1980s to mid-1990s) and their resulting worldview. However, I understand how loaded the term can be, and I hesitate to use the word “millennial” in professional contexts or when talking to people of other generations because I’m afraid it will stir up all these negative connotations.
“Millennial” has become what lexicographer and usage expert Bryan A. Garner calls a “skunked term,” a word that means different things to different people because its meaning is ambiguous or has changed over time. If you use a skunked term, some people will be so distracted by your word choice, they’ll lose sight of the point you’re trying to make.
“Decimate” is a textbook example of a skunked term. Because its original meaning was about killing every tenth person (it derives from the Latin word for “tenth”) there are some people who get very upset if you use the word to mean destruction or death in general.
This expanded sense of “decimate” is actually over 400 years old, which is, in my professional opinion, more than enough time for a meaning to be considered standard usage. But people who care about the original meaning really care about it, and insist on arguing. (Of course they don’t argue about the original meanings of all words, just the ones they happen to be familiar with.)
Sometimes you just want to communicate as clearly as you can without barriers, and people getting hung up on your word choice is a definite barrier to communication.
Of course, finding an alternative for your favorite terms can be tricky. Luckily, there are multiple browser extensions out there to do the work for you.
Jane Solomon is a lexicographer at Dictionary.com. Her children’s book “The Dictionary of Difficult Words” is forthcoming.