weasel words

“Weasel words” is an expression describing words meant to make a statement sound more legitimate and impressive but which are in fact meaningless. Weasel words give the impression of taking a firm position while avoiding commitment to any specific claim.

Weasel words are often sloppy intensifiers: significantly, substantially, reasonable, meaningful, compelling, undue, clearly, obviously, manifestly, if practicable, rather, duly, virtually, quite.

The word “weasel” comes from an ancient Indo–European word denoting a slimy liquid or poison which may also be the origin of “virus.” More recently it has featured in popular metaphor: “weaselly” meaning devious and evasive with overtones of malice. 

Author Stewart Chaplin explained the phrase in an article about political platforms in a 1900 issue of The Century Magazine: “weasel words are words that suck all the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks an egg and leaves the shell.”

Naturalists now are uncertain as to whether weasels do suck eggs. Shakespeare and his contemporaries believed they did. The Bard didn’t coin the expression “weasel words,” but he came very close.

The verb “to weasel” means “to renege on a promise,” usually for some cowardly reason. In prison slang, it refers to an informer. Why the weasel has acquired a cowardly reputation is not known; it is a bold, vicious little beast that kills more than it can eat.

The phrase “weasel words” first appeared in print in the US in the early 1900s. It’s possible that Roosevelt coined the expression but there’s no proof of that.

Weasel words are rampant in the corporate environment: any time a document uses words like positioning, mission, vision, passion, incentivizing, or synergy you should slow down and read carefully. Too often, the question is, “What are they trying to hide?”

Weasel words in conversation are much more likely to be used in a way that indicates that the speaker (or writer) is acting like a weasel. They’re being slippery; they’re bending around the truth; they’re wriggling out of a situation, or trying hard to make sure that they don’t get into “a situation” in the first place.

One of the greatest weasel words is “only.” What is the difference between pork bellies that are $9.95 a lug and pork bellies that are only $9.95 a lug? The word “only” suggests that the price is low. “Almost” is almost as slippery as only.

Another favorite expression of advertisers is “up to,” as in “This pen lasts up to 20 per cent longer.” The ad does not say that the pen will last 20 percent longer, but even if it did it still wouldn’t mean much since it doesn’t say longer than what.

Writing advice that I’ve read gives these as weasel words: almost, a little, kind of, sort of, very, great, somehow, seem, suddenly. The advice continues with, “But nothing happens ‘somehow.’ It happens because you wrote it. Take responsibility!”

I make a significantly reasonable and meaningful attempt to do so.

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  One thought on “weasel words

  1. August 26, 2020 at 7:16 am

    I loved your ending and indeed the whole of this article.


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