A weasel word (also, anonymous authority) is an informal term for equivocating words and phrases aimed at creating an impression that something specific and meaningful has been said, when in fact only a vague or ambiguous claim has been communicated.
For example, an advertisement may use a weasel phrase such as "up to 50% off on all products". This is misleading because the audience is invited to imagine many items reduced by the proclaimed 50%, but the words taken literally mean only that no discount will exceed 50%, and in extreme misrepresentation, the advertiser need not reduce any prices, which would still be consistent with the wording of the advertisement, since "up to 50" most literally means "any number less than or equal to 50".
The use of weasel words to avoid making an outright assertion is a synonym to tergiversate. Weasel words can imply meaning far beyond the claim actually being made. Some weasel words may also have the effect of softening the force of a potentially loaded or otherwise controversial statement through some form of understatement, for example using detensifiers such as "somewhat" or "in most respects".
The expression weasel word derives apparently from the egg-eating habits of weasels. An article published by the Buffalo News attributes the origin of the term to William Shakespeare's plays Henry V and As You Like It, in which the author includes similes of weasels sucking eggs. The article also claims that this is a misnomer, because weasels do not have a mandible suitable for sucking eggs or blood. Regardless of whether weasels in fact suck eggs, a belief that they do implies an egg shell devoid of its contents. Thus, words or claims that turn out to be empty upon analysis are known as "weasel words".
The expression first appeared in Stewart Chaplin's short story "Stained Glass Political Platform" (published in 1900 in The Century Magazine), in which they were referred to as "words that suck the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks the egg and leaves the shell". Theodore Roosevelt attributed the term to Dave Sewall, claiming that Sewall used the term in a private conversation in 1879. Winston Churchill wrote: "The reserve of modern assertions is sometimes pushed to extremes, in which the fear of being contradicted leads the writer to strip himself of almost all sense and meaning."
Additionally, the definition of the word 'weasel' includes: n. a sneaky, untrustworthy, or insincere person; v. to manipulate shiftily. A weasel word (or phrase) can quite likely be understood to come from a position of intending to manipulate the communication, in a sneaky or underhanded manner.
In the political sphere, this type of language is used to "spin" or alter the public's perception of an issue. In 1916, Theodore Roosevelt argued that "one of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use ...'weasel words'; when one 'weasel word' is used ... after another there is nothing left".
- Numerically vague expressions (e.g. "some people", "experts", "many")
- Use of the passive voice to avoid specifying an authority (e.g. "it is said")
- Adverbs that weaken (e.g. "often", "probably")
Other forms of weasel words include:
- Non sequitur statements
- Use of vague or ambiguous euphemisms (e.g., replacing "firing staff" with "streamlining the workforce")
- Use of grammatical devices such as qualifiers and the subjunctive mood
- Vague generalizations
Generalizations and non sequitur statements
The vagueness of a statement may disguise the validity or the aim of that statement. Generalizing by means of quantifiers, such as many or better, and the passive voice ("it has been decided") conceals the full picture in that it avoids the necessity of providing attribution. (If one were to put "it has been decided" into active voice, one would need to supply an actor: "X has decided".)
Non sequitur: Irrelevant statements are often used in advertising to make it appear that the statement is a beneficial feature of the product or service being advertised. Example: "The official coat hanger of a sports team". This statement announces a paid endorsement with the aim of suggesting that the quality of the coat hanger is superior to others. The statement does not, however, offer any evidence in support of its claim - there is not necessarily a link between the quality of a product and a paid endorsement. Some generalizations are considered unacceptable in writing. This category embraces what is termed a "semantic cop-out", represented by the term allegedly. This phrase implies an absence of ownership of opinion, which casts a limited doubt on the opinion being articulated.
Passive and middle voice
Both passive voice and middle voice can be used in English to avoid blame. A passive construction occurs when the object of an action is made the focus of the sentence (by moving it to the front). In some cases, the agent (the subject in active voice, usually indicated by "by" in the passive voice) is missing altogether, as the sentence "mistakes were made by the politicians", for example, has been curtailed deliberately to "mistakes were made."
- "Mistakes were made." The names of the persons who made mistakes is being withheld and the intention of weaseling is obvious.
- "Over 120 different contaminants have been dumped into the river." A more precise number of "contaminants" might have avoided the impression of weaseling, even though we might never know who the "dumpers" were.
- "It has been suggested that this article or section be..."
- "One hundred votes are required to pass the bill",
the use of the passive voice is not necessarily connected with weaseling. The phrase, "100 votes are required to pass the bill", is probably a statement of fact, that it is exactly 100 votes that are needed for the passing of the bill, and it might be impossible to predict where these votes are to come from. For a statement to be a weasel expression, it needs other indications of disingenuousness than the mere fact that it is expressed in the passive voice.
The scientific journal article is another example of the legitimate use of the passive voice. For an experimental result to be useful, anyone who runs the experiment should get the same result. That is, the identity of the experimenter should be of low importance. Use of the passive voice focuses attention upon the actions, and not the actor (the author(s) of the article).
Examples of weasel words using the middle voice are:
- "It stands to reason that most people will be better off after the changes."
- "There are great fears that most people will be worse off after the changes."
- "Experience insists that most people will not be better off after the changes."
Weasel words may be used to detract from an uncomfortable fact, such as the act of firing staff. By replacing "firing staff" with "headcount reduction", one may soften meaning. Jargon of this kind is used to describe things euphemistically.
In certain kinds of advertisements, words are missing or withheld deliberately to deceive the buyer. Words such as more or better are misleading due to the absence of a comparison:
- "... up to 50% off." (How many items were actually decreased in price by half? The statement holds true even if the price of only one item is reduced by half, and the rest by very little or none.)
- "Save up to $100 or more!" (What exactly is the significance of the $100? It is neither a minimum nor a maximum, it just sits arbitrarily somewhere in an undefined range.)
- "... is now 20% cheaper!" (Cheaper than what? The last model? Some arbitrarily inflated price?)
- "Four out of five people would agree..." (How many subjects were included in the study?)
- "... is among the (top, leading, best, few, worst, etc.)" (Top 100? Best in customer service/quality/management?)
- "... for a fraction of the original price!" (This wording suggests a much lower price even though the fraction could easily be 99/100 or 101/100)
- "More people are using..." (What does that mean in numbers?)
- "Nothing Is Stronger/Longer Lasting/Safer" (How many are equally as strong/long lasting/safe?)
- "Lose 20 pounds in 3 weeks" (20 pounds of what? Water, muscle, bone, money?)
Articles and books
In Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1956), U.S. Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt described astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek's report on the death of Air Force Pilot Thomas Mantell in pursuit of a UFO as "a masterpiece in the art of 'weasel wording'."
Carl Wrighter discussed weasel words in his best-selling book I Can Sell You Anything (1972).
Australian author Don Watson devoted two volumes (Death Sentence and Watson's Dictionary of Weasel Words) to documenting the increasing use of weasel words in government and corporate language. He maintains a website encouraging people to identify and nominate examples of weasel words.
Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, talks much about 'weasels' (conniving business people) in one of his books, named accordingly: Dilbert and the Way of The Weasel (2002).
- Microsoft Encarta, "weasel words"
- Merriam-Webster, "Weasel, verb"
- Yonghui Ma (2007), "Language Features of English Advertisement", Asian Social Science, March 2007, p 109
- Jason, Gary (1988) "Hedging as a Fallacy of Language", Informal Logic X.3, Fall 1988
- Theodore Roosevelt Association, Theodore Roosevelt Cyclopedia
- E. Cobham Brewer, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
- Rising, Gerry (15 March 1999). "Weasels". Buffalo News. Retrieved 24 December 2013, Buffalo.edu.
- According to The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase and Fable
- New York Times, Sept 2, 1916, "Origin of 'Weasel Words'"
- Merriam-Webster online dictionary def'n: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/weasel
- Crystal, Hilary; David Crystal (2000). Words on Words: Quotations about Language and Languages. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-12201-8. p. 199
- "Stop him before he votes". "suggests that today's 18-year-olds are too immature to vote. We should be talking about raising the voting age, not lowering it..."
- Viola Ganter and Michael Strube (2009), "Finding Hedges by Chasing Weasels: Hedge Detection Using Wikipedia Tags and Shallow Linguistic Features", Proceedings of the ACL-IJCNLP 2009 Conference Short Papers, page 175
- Garber, Marjorie B. Academic Instincts. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11571-0. p. 140 "it is alleged"
- "Passive Voice". The Writing Center. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 24 December 2013.
- "The Passive Voice" (PDF). English and Theatre – Grammar Pages. Acadia University.
- "Has Downsizing Gone too Far?". University of North Florida, Jacksonville, Florida, USA, December, 1995. Retrieved 2007-10-05.
- Report on Unidentified Flying Objects
- Examples and discussion of weasel words
- Jason, Gary (1988) "Hedging as a Fallacy of Language", Informal Logic X.3, Fall 1988
- Weaselwords http://www.weaselwords.com.au/
- Unsuck It http://unsuck-it.com/browse/