A modifying word that undermines or contradicts the meaning of the word, phrase, or clause it accompanies, such as "genuine replica." More broadly, any word used with the intention to mislead or misinform.
- Blurred Word
- A Dictionary of Phony Phrases
- Hedge Words
- Soft Language
- Totally Overworked Words: The Use and Abuse of Qualifiers and Intensifiers
Etymology:Expression popularized by Theodore Roosevelt in a speech in 1916
Examples, and Observations:
- "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)
"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)
"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)
- "I hate any variation on the word 'pamper.' It's a weasel word that, while pretending to celebrate women, in fact expresses disdain and distaste for them."
(Julie Burchill, "A Suitable Case for Treatment." The Guardian, Feb 23, 2008)
"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)