Weasel words is an informal term for 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 practice the vendor is free to not reduce any prices and still remain faithful to the wording of the advertisement.
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".
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."
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 detensify (e.g. "often", "probably")
Other forms of weasel words include:
- Non sequitur statements
- Use of 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
Template:Original research 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") conceal the full picture.
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. In this the paid endorsement doesn't imply anything about its quality but is implied that it does[clarification needed]. Some generalizations are considered unacceptable in writing. This category embraces what is termed a "semantic cop-out", represented by the term allegedly. This phrase, which became something of a catch phrase on the weekly satirical BBC television series Have I Got News For You, implies an absence of ownership of opinion, which casts a limited doubt on the opinion being articulated.
Extrapolating through the use of grammatical devices such as qualifiers and the subjunctive can be used to introduce facts that are beyond the proof of the cited work. This is a legitimate function of language, which resembles weaseling. When it is impractical to enumerate and cite many individual works, then the use of these grammatical devices conforms to the standards established by tradition. For example: "For scientists as for so many others, evolution served as an example of a fundamental challenge to long-held convictions".
Also rhetorically valid is the use of the neuter pronoun it and the adverb there as impersonal dummy subjects, as when an author intends to distance himself/herself from the work, or to separate one part of the text from another:
- "At the beginning, it was the train that was late."
- "It was a matter of total indifference that..."
- "After the end of the Californian gold rush, there were many ghost towns."
- "There are people who wash very infrequently."
The personal pronoun one, as a subject or an object in formal speech, that refers either to oneself or as a generalization to anyone in a similar situation, may also be used justifiably to distance a speaker from a subject.
- "One wonders what else was being discussed that evening."
- "What can one do in circumstances such as these?"
Passive and middle voice
The passive voice and middle voice can both be used in English to weasel away from 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."
- "Over 120 different contaminants have been dumped into the river."
- "It has been suggested that this article or section be..."
In the example: "Mistakes were made," it is clear that the names of the persons who made mistakes is being withheld and the intention of weaseling is obvious.
In the "over 120 different contaminants..." sentence, a more precise number of "contaminants" might have avoided the impression of weaseling, even though we might never know who the "dumpers" were.
A related issue is the stylistic qualms held by linguists and teachers who discourage the passive voice being used too frequently. However, in the sentence
- "One hundred votes are required to pass the bill",
the usage 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.
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."
Not all sentences using the middle voice are necessarily weasel words. The above sentence: "It stands to reason that most people will be better off after the changes", is clearly an instance of redundancy rather than weaseling. There is no need for "it stands to reason..." All that is needed is: "More people will be better off after the changes". What is relevant is what has been said before or is going to be said afterwards in the context of the discussion where the sentence occurs.
Style is another point more important in the discernment of the use of middle or passive voice. The above sentence: "There are great fears..." would have been better in the passive voice: "It is feared that most people will be worse off after the changes". The passive voice is the more logical choice here for the reason that this sentence would not stand on its own, but would occur in the course of a discussion. If the reasoning behind the sentence is so obvious within the discussion that it does not need substantiating by citing thousands of sources then the passive is perfectly alright.
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.)
- "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)
- "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?)
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 book I Can Sell You Anything (1972).
Australian author Don Watson collected two volumes (Death Sentence and Watson's Dictionary of Weasel Words) 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
- Merrian Webster Weasel, verb
- Yonghui Ma (2007), "Language Features of English Advertisement", Asian Social Science, March 2007, p109
- 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
- University at Buffalo, Weasels
- According to The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase and Fable
- New York Times, Sept 2, 1916, "Origin of 'Weasel Words'"
- Crystal, Hilary; David Crystal (2000). Words on Words: Quotations about Language and Languages. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226122018. p. 199
- "Five-year Traffic Statistics for Wikipedia.org". Alexa Internet. http://www.alexa.com/data/details/traffic_details/wikipedia.org?range=5y&size=large&y=t. Retrieved 2009-10-13.
- Bill Tancer (2007-05-01). "Look Who's Using Wikipedia". Time. http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1595184,00.html. Retrieved 2007-12-01. "The sheer volume of content [...] is partly responsible for the site's dominance as an online reference. When compared to the top 3,200 educational reference sites in the U.S., Wikipedia is #1, capturing 24.3% of all visits to the category" Cf. Bill Tancer (Global Manager, Hitwise), "Wikipedia, Search and School Homework", Hitwise: An Experian Company (Blog), March 1, 2007. Retrieved December 18, 2008.
- Alex Woodson (2007-07-08). "Wikipedia remains go-to site for online news". Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/internetNews/idUSN0819429120070708. Retrieved 2007-12-16. "Online encyclopedia Wikipedia has added about 20 million unique monthly visitors in the past year, making it the top online news and information destination, according to Nielsen//NetRatings."
- 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 0691115710. p. 140 "it is alleged"
- "Passive Voice". Handouts and Links. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/passivevoice.html. Retrieved 30 August 2010.
- "Passive Voice". Acadia University. http://ace.acadiau.ca/english/grammar/passive.htm.[dead link]
- "Has Downsizing Gone too Far?". University of North Florida, Jacksonville, Florida, USA, December, 1995.. http://www.iopsych.org/downsize.htm. 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