Weasel word  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e

Wiki Commons

Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

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, or even a refutation 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".

In other cases, words with a particular subjective effect are chosen. For example, one person may speak of "resistance fighters" or "freedom fighters", while another may call the same subjects "terrorists". The underlying facts are the same, but a quite different impression is given.

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." Current examples include governing parties in various countries commenting upon their country's financial state with statements such as "the budget deficits we inherited" rather than specifically blaming their predecessors.

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".


  • "A growing body of evidence..." (Where is the raw data for your review?)
  • "People say..." (Which people? How do they know?)
  • "It has been claimed that..." (By whom, where, when?)
  • "Critics claim..." (Which critics?)
  • "Clearly..." (As if the premise is undeniably true)
  • "It stands to reason that..." (Again, as if the premise is undeniably true—see "Clearly" above)
  • "Questions have been raised..." (Implies a fatal flaw has been discovered)
  • "I heard that..." (Who told you? Is the source reliable?)
  • "There is evidence that..." (What evidence? Is the source reliable?)
  • "Experience shows that..." (Whose experience? What was the experience? How does it demonstrate this?)
  • "It has been mentioned that..." (Who are these mentioners? Can they be trusted?)
  • "Popular wisdom has it that..." (Is popular wisdom a test of truth?)
  • "Commonsense has it/insists that..." (The common sense of whom? Who says so? See "Popular wisdom" above, and "It is known that" below)
  • "It is known that..." (By whom and by what method is it known?)
  • "Officially known as..." (By whom, where, when—who says so?)
  • "It turns out that..." (How does it turn out?¹)
  • "It was noted that..." (By whom, why, when?)
  • "Nobody else's product is better than ours." (What is the evidence of this?)
  • "Studies show..." (what studies?)
  • "A recent study at a leading university..." (How recent is your study? At what university?)
  • "(The phenomenon) came to be seen as..." (by whom?)
  • "Some argue..." (who?)
  • "Up to sixty percent..." (so, 59%? 50%? 10%?)
  • "More than seventy percent..." (How many more? 70.01%? 80%? 90%?)
  • "The vast majority..." (All, more than half—how many?)

¹It is important that real examples do not in fact explain, at a later stage of the argument, what exactly is meant by "it turns out that"; the whole needs to be looked at before it can be decided that it is a weasel term. |salign = |source = }}

A 2009 study of Wikipedia found that most weasel words in it could be divided into three categories:

  1. Numerically vague expressions (e.g. "some people", "experts", "many")
  2. Use of the passive voice to avoid specifying an authority (e.g. "it is said")
  3. Adverbs that weaken (e.g. "often", "probably")

Other forms of weasel words include:

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..."

A related issue is the stylistic qualms of 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 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."

In business

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).

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Weasel word" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools