What Are Weasel Words?

"If you use a weasel word after another there is nothing left of the other"

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th president of the United States.

By most accounts, the expression weasel word first appeared in Stewart Chaplin's satirical short story "Stained Glass Political Platform," published in The Century Magazine in June 1900:

Why, weasel words are words that suck the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks the egg and leaves the shell. If you heft the egg afterward it's as light as a feather, and not very filling when you are hungry, but a basketful of them would make quite a show, and would bamboozle the unwary.

I know them well, and mighty useful they are, too. Although the gentleman couldn't write much of a platform, he's an expert on weaseling. I've seen him take his pen and go through a proposed plank or resolution and weasel every flat-footed word in it. Then the weasel word pleases one man, and the word that's been weaseled pleases another.

(Quoted by Joseph Bucklin Bishop in Theodore Roosevelt and His Time Shown in His Own Letters. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926)
But it was Theodore Roosevelt who popularized the expression in a speech delivered on May 31, 1916:
One of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use what have been called weasel words. When a weasel sucks eggs the meat is sucked out of the egg. If you use a weasel word after another there is nothing left of the other.
At the time Roosevelt was attacking Woodrow Wilson's proposal for "universal voluntary military training." Roosevelt said, "You can have universal training, or you can have voluntary training, but when you use the word 'voluntary' to qualify the word 'universal,' you are making a weasel word."

 

Of course you don't have to go back a century to find weasel words and the snake-oil merchants who use them. Voluntary regulations, involuntary career events, negative economic growth, negative patient outcomes, genuine replicas, faux diamonds, simulated leather, substantially correct, arguably true, usually reliable--weasel words all.

As noted by a contributor to 100 Words and Phrases That Ticked You Off in 2013, such doublespeak is alive and well.

Now I'm almost certain that at one time or another practically everyone has been bamboozled by weasel words. Here are a few more examples.

  • Conceivably. In spy talk the term means that there is little chance the hypothesis that follows is correct. Also [it is a] bureaucratic weasel word meaning that the following comment has been included by an insistent member of the innumerable people who routinely "clear" a memo, but seems wacko to everyone else.
    (Paul Wasserman and Don Hausrath, Weasel Words: The Dictionary of American Doublespeak. Capital Books, 2006)
  • Weasel words also occur in arguments. Consider the following:
    Since paying a worker the 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. That someone might argue for something hardly shows that the argument is cogent.
    (Malcolm Murray and Nebojsa Kujundzic, Critical Reflection: A Textbook for Critical Thinking. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005)
  • On Nov. 24, the nation of Switzerland held a special election on whether to seal into law the maximum salary an executive can earn relative to his company’s lowest-paid workers. It was defeated. Called the “1.12 Initiative for Fair Pay,” it highlights the frequency with which the weasel word “fair” enters into political discourse. . . . The catchword “fair” has been around for centuries, and even though we use it with positive emphasis, we really know so little about it. (Dr. William Beranek, "Exactly What Is Fair? Do Childhood Values Heavily Influence Adult Values?" The Augusta Chronicle, November 30, 2013)
  • "Help" functions in advertising as a weasel. "Help" means literally aid or assist and nothing more. 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." Once "help" is used to qualify a claim, almost anything can be said after it. Accordingly, we are exposed to ads for products that "help keep us young," "help prevent cavities," and "help keep our houses germ free." Just think of how many times a day you hear or read pitches that say "helps stop," "helps prevent," "helps fight," "helps overcome," "helps you feel," and "helps you look."
    (Joel Rudinow and Vincent E. Barry, Invitation to Critical Thinking. Thomson, 2008)

 

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