What Is a Weasel Word?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

zahoor salmi / Getty Images

A weasel word is a modifying word that undermines or contradicts the meaning of the word, phrase, or clause it accompanies, such as "genuine replica." Also known as a weaselism.

More broadly, weasel word may refer to any word that's used with the intention to mislead or misinform.

The term was coined by author Stewart Chaplin in 1900 and popularized by Theodore Roosevelt in a speech in 1916.

An Early Example of the Term

In June, 1900, the Century Magazine published a story entitled 'The Stained Glass Political Platform,' by Stewart Chaplin, . . . and on page 235 these words occur:
Why, 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. If you heft the egg afterward it's as light as a feather, and not very filling when you're hungry, but a basketful of them would make quite a show, and would bamboozle the unwary.

This is the origin of the term Colonel [Theodore] Roosevelt has made famous.
(Herbert M. Lloyd, letter to The New York Times, June 3, 1916)

"Help" as a Weasel Word

"Consider the weasel word help. Help means 'aid' or 'assist' and nothing else. Yet as one author has observed, 'help' is the one single word which, in all the annals of advertising, has done the most to say something that couldn't be said. Because the word help is used to qualify, almost anything can be said after it. Thus we're exposed to ads for products that 'help keep us young,' 'help prevent cavities,' 'help keep our houses germ-free.' Consider for a moment how many times a day you hear or read phrases like these: helps stop, helps prevent, helps fight, helps overcome, helps you feel, helps you look." (William H. Shaw, Business Ethics: A Textbook with Cases, 7th ed. Wadsworth, Cengage, 2011)

Faux Words

"I love the word 'faux.' I first really learned to appreciate this word watching the home-shopping channels, which addicted me for many months. In their glamorous parlance, vinyl became faux leather and cut glass became faux diamonds. The word itself is deceptive; it doesn't look the way it sounds. And when you insert it before a noun, that noun ends up taking on the exact opposite meaning." (Jeanne Cavelos, quoted by Lewis Burke Frumkes in Favorite Words of Famous People. Marion Street Press, 2011)
"First, faux research yields a faux answer to a clinical question. Then faux education assures that doctors everywhere hear about it, so they can write millions of prescriptions based on the faux information. Bribes and kickbacks sometimes grease the skids." (Marcia Angell, The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It. Random House, 2005)

Here Are Some Weasel Words

"So. This piece is about how public figures and now members of the general public have started prefacing something they are about to say with the word 'so' when it is a packaged exercise in self-presentation. 'So' is the new 'look.' . . .
"There have always been words swilling around the cultural lexicon signalling artifice and there are others around at the moment. Prefacing a package with 'I would like to say' or 'To be honest' are hardy perennials. But 'so' is the weasel word of the moment, spreading into general usage.
"Last Monday evening, a member of the public was interviewed on Radio 5 Live outside Buckingham Palace. Asked why she and her friend had come there, she began: 'So. We went out to dinner together and both received texts from our husbands at the same time saying that the royal baby was born.' 'So' has become a way for a person to begin delivery of a packaged account of themselves." (Oliver James, “So, Here’s a Carefully Packaged Sentence That Shows Me in My Best Light.” The Guardian [UK], July 26, 2013)

"Reportedly" as a Weasel Word

"As an old Time writer, I immediately spotted, in two consecutive sentences, the weasel-word 'reportedly,' the Time-honored hedge against the possibility that the facts in a given sentence might not hold up to reasonable scrutiny." (John Gregory Dunne, "Your Time Is My Time." The New York Review of Books, April 23, 1992)

"Arguably" as a Weasel Word

"Weasel words also occur in arguments. Consider the following:
Since paying a worker the current minimum wage is arguably the same as having a slave, and since slavery is illegal under the Constitution, the current minimum wage ought to be outlawed.
All this seems fairly straightforward until we look closer at the little weasel word 'arguably.' To give an argument is not necessarily to give a good argument." (Malcolm Murray and Nebojsa Kujundzic, Critical Reflection: A Textbook for Critical Thinking. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005)
"To conservative rhetors in Congress, whatever is not blandly or angrily populist is elitist. In their resort to this weasel word, the patriotically correct on the right are as bad as the politically correct on the residual left." (Robert Hughes, "Pulling the Fuse on Culture." Time, Aug. 7, 1995)
"There are . . . understatements to avoid the truth, such as 'economic adjustment' for recession. There are broad abstractions for an unacceptable term or idea: 'downsizing' for slashing employment, masking words such as 'preowned' for used, and PC euphemisms such as 'economic deprivation' for being poor." (Paul Wasserman and Don Hausrath, Weasel Words: The Dictionary of American Doublespeak. Capital Books, 2006)
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Weasel Word?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/weasel-word-1692604. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is a Weasel Word? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/weasel-word-1692604 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Weasel Word?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/weasel-word-1692604 (accessed June 9, 2023).