Weasel words – the phrase invokes a vivid visual.
There’s only one problem: which weasel words did you mean?
There are actually two very different uses (…if it were a frequently used phrase, it might qualify for skunking). Let’s get to it.
First, a note: In honor of the gratuitous comparisons and contrasts spawned by President Obama’s visit to Osawatomie, Kansas, this week, 101 years after Teddy Roosevelt did the same, I’m posting on a Roosevelt-related topic.
According to Garner, Teddy Roosevelt was one of the first to attach a definition to the phrase weasel words, in a speech given in St. Louis, Missouri, on May 16, 1916:
One of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use what have been called weasel words. When a weasel sucks out eggs it sucks the meat out of the egg and leaves it an empty shell. If you use a weasel word after another there is nothing left of the other.
Who knew TR was such a keen observer of language? I’m sorry to say, Teddy, things haven’t changed much in the last century. About the only difference these days is that in modern English syntax weasel words usually come before the word being drained (“clearly correct”) rather than after (“support substantially“).
The kind of weasel words TR was complaining about are sloppy intensifiers that suck the life out of words around them: significantly, substantially, reasonable, meaningful, compelling, undue, clearly, obviously, manifestly, if practicable, rather, somewhat, duly, virtually, quite (this list is Garner’s). You can easily find examples of other words that qualify; they’re usually modifiers: consistently, nearly, frequently, almost, absolutely, and so on. They’re similar to the filter words writers sometimes carelessly use, but more corrosive.
The idea expressed by TR is that clear writing (or speech) doesn’t need these flabby modifiers. All they manage to do is inflate the language around what’s being communicated, in the process undermining the strength of the actual words being used. It’s hard to disagree, although modern writing has become so infested with this sort of construction that they’re very difficult to get rid of. In this single paragraph, I’ve arguably used no fewer than ten weasel word constructions, even while being aware of the problem. Most, if not all, of them probably slipped by you unnoticed. They might be the fnords of modern discourse.
TR wasn’t the first (or last) to use the phrase. Its purported origin (with this meaning) goes back to 1900. Or 1879. Or even to a couple of Shakespeare plays. The great scholar Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992), darling of the far right in recent decades, apparently thought the adjective “social” was the worst of all weasel words. In his 1988 book, Hayek opined that phrases such as social justice, social awareness, and social work were particularly insidious.
That covers the traditional definition for weasel words. Words that suck away meaning, the way the weasel sucks eggs. But in common use, you’re more likely to encounter another meaning.
If you hear the phrase weasel words in conversation, it’s much more likely to be used in a way that – instead of sucking out the meaning – indicates that the speaker (or writer) is instead acting like a weasel. They’re being slippery; they’re bending around the truth (such a pesky obstacle); 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.
The category of weasel words in this sense is incredibly broad, almost defying useful definition (see the wikipedia entry for an example of the mess that results if you try). You know them when you see them: “Mistakes were made.” “It has been suggested…” “Many experts agree…” They’re frequently used in political speech, but there’s no monopoly. Consider this excerpt from a job description:
“…act as a ‘creative’ change agent, a vocal team player, and passionate communicator driving from conceptual ideas through to execution and ongoing maintenance and improvement, synthesize cross-functional input to identify tradeoffs and make recommendations, balancing capabilities, constraints, and priorities.”
Apply only if you can obfuscate at least as well as the ad copy. Speaking of weaselly ad copy: “There’s nothing else like it!” “New and Improved!” Perhaps true, but weaseled.
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. What are they trying to say, exactly? Too often, the question is “what are they trying to hide?”
We even, sadly, have seen weasel words in Supreme Court decisions. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Court ordered desegregation to occur “with all deliberate speed.” Some legal scholars contend that this ambiguous phrasing was a stroke of genius; others that it was a political compromise. I suggest it was simply a careless and possibly unconscious use of a weasel word. (I’m not even going to touch the problem of legalese in general. The profession’s reputation for deliberate obfuscation is well deserved.)
So, there are your two categories of weasel words, in a nutshell:
Old style: weasel words undermine strength and meaning, but they might not be used with malicious intent.
New style: weasel words are usually deliberately deceptive.
That’s the difference between using a euphemism in polite company to maintain an appropriate tone, versus using doublespeak in a debate to cloud the issue and confuse the audience.
So which weasel words do you mean? Does it matter? I don’t think so. Both definitions have a clear meaning. Both provide colorful and vivid images. Both strike me as interesting and useful metaphors, and neither image seems in danger of being overused or becoming cliché. The important thing is that neither type lends itself to particularly good writing. Keep their use to a minimum.
[End Note: Since this past Monday’s post was a word, I moved the usage post to Friday. The regular pattern will resume next week.]