Column: A weasel by any other word


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

As a child, I assumed lava would play a bigger part in my life than it has. Yet, I haven’t seen lava in person once. I feel like I overprepared myself for lava and underprepared myself for scheduling a dentist appointment.

Similarly, weasels seemed as though they’d be a daily occurrence in my adult life. Pop goes the weasel. You dirty weasel. Again — I have never seen a weasel.

One type of weasel thing we need to know about is the idea of a “weasel word.” A weasel word (or weaselism) modifies a statement by lessening its impact — almost to the point of not meaning anything. It’s the insertion of words to make a statement vague.

Think of a politician’s answer to a question. He doesn’t want to come down on either side of the topic, yet he wants his voter base to feel like he’s said something coherent.

Last February, former President Trump said (of coronavirus), “You know, a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat — as the heat comes in. Typically, that will go away in April.” In this example, the phrase “a lot of people” doesn’t hold any weight. Similar weasel words include “many,” “virtually” and “most.”

OK, now before you think I’m going to beat up on only one politician, let’s take a look at President Biden’s campaign called “Build Back Better.” As a language person, I appreciate the alliteration. However — build back better than what? A sandcastle? A pillow fort? Words that do not say “how much,” including “better,” “gains” or “improved,” are weasel words that let people off the hook because the promises are vague instead of specific.

“Weasel word” has its roots in the early 20th century. While Teddy Roosevelt popularized the term in a 1916 speech, he didn’t coin it as he claimed to have done. We first see “weasel word” in a 1900 story in The Century Magazine by New York lawyer Stewart Chaplin.

A weasel word is any word or phrase that makes a statement less specific. Did anything change? It “seems” (looks, appears) like things are getting better. Are people better off than they were four years ago? “At least” (up to, as many as) 9 million people now own solar-charged robot butlers. OK, but what about everyone else? Where are their robot butlers?

Just as childhood gave us vague warnings of lava around nearly every corner, politicians (among others) give us vague weasel words that don’t amount to anything. Only when we get specific, straightforward answers can we measure results and hold others accountable for their promises.