Weasel word  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
For advice on the use of weasel words in editing Wikipedia, see [[Wikipedia:Avoid weasel words.}}

A weasel word is a word that is intended to, or has the effect of, softening the force of a potentially loaded or otherwise controversial statement, or avoids forming a clear position on a particular issue. Weasel words can be readily identified in a large amount of corporate correspondence, and are frequently used by politicians.

Weasel words can be used as euphemisms to smooth over an uncomfortable fact (e.g.: "headcount reduction"" instead of "firing staff"), or to create a sense of grandeur and importance (e.g.: "transitory staffing solution provider" instead of "temp agency").

Carl Wrighter identified weasel words in his book I Can Sell You Anything (1972). Earlier, in Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1956), U.S. Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt describes 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'."[1]

The phrase could invoke an image of the weasel as being sneaky and able to wiggle out of a tight spot. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the term is derived from the weasel's ability to suck the contents out of an egg without breaking the shell; thus, weasel words suck the meaning out of a statement while seeming to keep the idea intact.

Generally, weasel terms are statements that are misleading because they lack the normal substantiations of their truthfulness, as well as the background information against which these statements are made. Weasel terms can be used to generate spin in the political sphere.

Weasel words are almost always intended to deceive or draw attention from something the speaker doesn't want emphasized, rather than being the inadvertent result of the speaker's or writer's poor but honest attempt at description.

Australian author Don Watson has 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 [2] encouraging people to identify and nominate examples of weasely language, which gives many examples of dissimulation through excessive verbosity. Watson was previously a speech writer for Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating.



  • Weasel words can be used to draw attention away from adverse evidence.
  • They are used intentionally to manipulate an audience by heightening audience expectations about the speaker's subject.
  • Claims about the truth of a subject at an earlier time when the truth could not have been ascertained because of a lack of hard facts, will become much harder to verify when weasel words have been used in the meantime. This may be seen when a politician, for example, later tries to alter the perception of an original speech.
  • A weasel phrase can be used to avoid criticism sounding negative, such as beginning an insult with the phrase, "With all due respect..."

Syntax, part of which is missing

In certain kinds of advertisements, for example, the part of the syntax that would normally establish the validity of a statement is missing or is being withheld deliberately in the expectation that the listener or reader will complete the message subliminally and so will be influenced by it:

  • "... is now 20% cheaper" (It is now 20% cheaper than what?)
  • "There is more goodness in ..." (How is this goodness measured and of what does it consist?)
  • "More people than ever are using ..." (What does that mean in numbers?)
  • "New and improved ..." (Improved in which qualities? If it is "improved", how can it also be "new"?)
  • "Our ... will never be cheaper." (Is this accounting for inflation? Is your profit margin thin enough that you could not have a cheaper sale next year?)
  • "Clinically tested..." (but not proven? What did the test results reveal? Does the product work as claimed?)
  • "Four of every five people would agree." (Is this a good sample population? Were only five people interviewed?)
  • "... is among the" or "... one of the (top, leading, best, few, worst, etc.)" (How many else among? What percentage are not among? Where does the one rank among?)

Generalization using weasel words

Generalization by means of grammatical quantifiers (few, many, people, etc.), as well as some uses of the passive voice ("it has been decided") can involve weasel words. Generalization in this way helps speakers or writers disappear in the crowd and thus disown responsibility for what they have said.

  • "People say…" (Who are the people who say it?)
  • "I heard that..." (Whom did you hear it from? How, where and when did they learn of it?)
  • "Experience shows that..." (Whose experience? What was the experience? How does it demonstrate this?)
  • "Few of those who knew the truth have spoken up for …" (Which people knew the truth and should have spoken up?)
  • "It has been decided that..." (Who decided?)
  • "It turns out that..." (How, and why, did it "turn out" that way?)
  • "Popular wisdom is/has it, that..." (Who made it popular, and is it really?).

In the following phrases, an indication of where or how the stories started would have removed the weaseling effect:

  • "It has been mentioned that..." (Who mentioned it?)
  • "Rumour has it that..." (Where was this rumour published or spread? Who is included in the group that is just about anybody?)
  • "There is evidence that..." (What evidence? Where is it? What are the details?)
  • "A source states that..." or "There is an accusation that..." (What is the source? Is it reliable?)

There are some forms of generalization which are considered unacceptable in standard 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 show, Have I Got News For You, implies an absence of ownership of opinion which casts a limited doubt on the opinion being articulated.

See also

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