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Ferreting Out the Weasel Words : A Lack of Substance Behind the Appearance Is the Key

November 28, 1986|JOHN TAGG | Tagg is a San Marcos, Calif., free-lance writer and former speech and writing instructor at Cal State Northridge and UC Berkeley. and

I recently conducted an informal survey of a group of moderately intelligent college students and discovered, to my chagrin, that not one of them understood the full metaphorical import of the term weasel word. Several captured the connotation of the phrase: Weasels are sneaky; weasel words are used to avoid responsibility. But in view of the fact that weasel words have become a staple of contemporary political and commercial discourse, we should be clear on the meaning of this useful term.

The weasel, that least straightforward of beasts, will sneak into a bird's nest, bite a small hole in each egg, and suck out the contents, leaving the shell essentially intact. To a casual glance, the nest appears undamaged. But it is merely a facade; there is no substance behind the appearance. The eggs are merely empty shells.

Likewise, a single word or a brief phrase inserted into a meaningful sentence can suck all the meaning out while leaving the sentence superficially intact.

Response to a Speech

President Theodore Roosevelt's use of the term brought it to popular attention, though he did not coin it. We have this on the authority of William and Mary Morris in the "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins." Roosevelt used the term in a speech in 1916. President Woodrow Wilson had proposed a system of "universal voluntary training." Roosevelt responded: "One of our defects as a nation has been the tendency to use what have been called weasel words. . . . If you use a weasel word after another there is nothing left of the other. Now you can have universal training or you can have voluntary training, but when you use voluntary to qualify universal, you are using a weasel word; it has sucked all the meaning out of universal. The two words flatly contradict each other."

This defect in our national language, noted in 1916, has not diminished. Indeed, the weasel word has become a trademark of some kinds of advertising. An automobile dealer advertised "the lowest sticker price in America." This looks like, but does not mean, "the lowest price in America."

Perhaps the easiest weasel word to inject into almost any sentence is may . "The United States may at this very moment be initiating war with the Soviet Union." "After you try Groans pills, you may never have a headache again." Both statements are perfectly true because neither asserts more than a bare possibility. It is almost impossible to falsify a may statement because it asserts so little. But the weasel word is so inconspicuous an attachment to what, without it, would be a meaningful and important claim, that we often fail to attend to it fully. So such a sentence connotes vastly more than it denotes. And if we buy the product or accept the claim and are disappointed, we will feel that we have been deceived. And we have, but only by being partners to the deception.

The only defense against weasel words is to be alert, to pay attention. If we don't, we ourselves are partly to blame when we find that we've got nothing but eggshells for breakfast.

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