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On Weasel Words

In 1900, the American lawyer Stewart Chaplin wrote a short story entitled “The Stained Glass Political Platform” which was published in The Century Illustrated Magazine. In this story, the protagonist, Harris St John states:

“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."

First published in 2003, Don Watson’s Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language reinvigorated the term “weasel words” and his follow-up book Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words provides a useful list for those who like to play bureaucratic bingo during meetings.

What do terms such as “best practice” or “innovation” or “key deliverables” mean? Harry G Frankfurt has claimed that such terms are used intentionally to hide the fact that the people speaking them don’t understand what they’re saying.

Then there are words that distort English grammar. In a speech about “community” made in April 2021, the Australian Prime Minister said:

“I shared some of these learnings with my own church community last week”.

“Learnings”. Not lessons. “Learnings”. I’m not saying there’s no such thing as a plural gerund, but do we talk about “eatings” or “swimmings”? (“Readings” is fine because that’s my favourite bookstore).

Several books by authors such as Joep Schijvers and Margaret Sims have critiqued the language of managerialism. Why have a plan when you can have a roadmap? Of course, that roadmap can also be a pathway and it may or may not have guardrails.

Recently, I was involved in a project where a contributor kept talking about the need for “capability uplift” in the workforce. Not knowing what this meant, I told a friend who thought it might be part of an advertisement for Viagra. After I mentioned this response, the term thankfully disappeared.

It’s easy to satirise the (over)use of weasel words and I’m enjoying doing so in my fiction writing. However, there is a serious side to this.

Language can be used to construct the world as well as help understand it. George Orwell in Politics and the English Language wrote that “political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. Think of military euphemisms for death and torture such as “collateral damage” and “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

Weasel words can be used to exert social control in other ways. Think of all the workers in bureaucratic organisations responding to increasing demands to document their compliance with protocols, codes, policies, procedures, rules, guidelines, risk assessments, “strategic” plans, “visions”, “mission statements” and the like.

Language matters and next time you identify a weasel word, it’s worth asking: Is this simply fatuous – or is it oppressive?

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