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Are Weasel Words Affecting Your Relationships?

They can have a negative impact on clear communication.

Key points

  • Weasel words refer to any intentionally vague or potentially misleading verbiage.
  • Weasel words can alter the meaning of the words that follow them.
  • These phrases can create ambiguity and undercut our intentions when communicating.
FranciscoJavierCoradoR / Pixabay
Weasel words can have a variety of effects
Source: FranciscoJavierCoradoR / Pixabay

As a follow-up to my piece on skunked terms, it might be worthwhile to consider another type of communication that goes by an animal name: weasel words.

The term first appeared in print in 1900, in a short story written by Stewart Chaplin. In the story, weasel words are defined as “words that suck all the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks an egg and leaves the shell.”

Chaplin’s story is a cynical account of the drafting of a political platform. At one point, the characters laud adding the word “duly” to the phrase, “The public should be duly protected." This is viewed as a particularly fine example of weaselly language.

The phrase was popularized in a speech given in 1916 by Theodore Roosevelt. In his remarks, the former president was critical of Woodrow Wilson’s use of the phrase “universal voluntary training,” pointing out that the word “voluntary” “sucked all the meaning out of ‘universal.’”

Over time, the term’s meaning has broadened to refer to any intentionally vague or potentially misleading verbiage.

Weasel Words and Politics

Both Chaplin and Roosevelt were critiquing weasel words in political language, and over a century later, politicians still make heavy use of them. Phrases like “some people say,” “many folks think,” or “as we all know” are a staple of stump speeches for many candidates—no evidence is provided, consensus is assumed, and the veracity of the following claim is presupposed.

Political discourse has many terms that are misleading. A “democratic republic,” for example, is a nation in which its citizens elect their leaders, although a half dozen countries, such as North Korea and Ethiopia, use this term as part of their official name but do not hold fair elections.

In a similar way, the meaning of terms like “freedom,” “reform” or “patriotism” are often in the eye of the beholder.

Weaselly Advertising

But politicians aren’t the only offenders. Advertisers and marketers make heavy use of weasel words too.

Commercials often make unsubstantiated appeals to science, as in “research shows” or “studies prove,” or to authority, as in “experts say” or “four out of five dentists agree.” “New and improved” and “fast-acting” are highly subjective terms. And the warranty that purports to provide coverage for “up to 60 months” may turn out to be far shorter than five years.

Weasel Words in Science

Ironically, the worst offenders may be the experts themselves.

Scientists are taught to not overinterpret their findings and to avoid making sweeping generalizations. As a result, research reports are larded with phrases like “it is possible,” “to some extent,” or “it seems likely.” Researchers are justifiably reluctant to make claims that aren’t fully supported by their data, but this can make the conclusions that scientists draw seem mealy-mouthed or overly cautious.

How Weasel Words Warp Language

Weasel words are problematic in many domains, and they can also negatively impact interpersonal relationships.

When coworkers, friends, or intimate partners preface their opinions with words like “clearly” or “obviously,” there is a weaselly presupposition that what they are about to say is unbiased and objective—the sort of thing that any reasonable person would agree with. To put it a different way, weasel words can transform an opinion into a fact.

Interestingly, the reverse also holds true. People often use weasel words to be polite and to avoid expressing negative opinions or unpleasant truths. They may use indirect speech or hedging to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, but this may obscure their true feelings and lead to misunderstandings later on.

For example, if someone says, “I was sort of hoping that we could get away this weekend,” they may actually have a strong desire to travel somewhere. But if their partner focuses on the weasel words “sort of,” they may conclude that the idea was just a passing thought. The phrase “sort of” has sucked the meaning out of “hoping” and altered the way that the statement is interpreted.

There are many such phrases that can have similar effects. The crestfallen woman who says “I was kind of disappointed” undercuts the degree to which something discouraged her and may create the false impression that she wasn’t particularly bothered by what had happened.

I was reminded of this recently when I had lunch with an old friend. At one point, I asked what he thought of an article that I had shared with him. His reply was, “It wasn’t one of your best.” This was, of course, a polite way of saying that he didn’t care for what I had written, but in some ways, this obfuscation hurt my feelings more than a simple statement of whatever he hadn't liked. Good friends should feel free to be honest with one another, and I felt that his evasiveness put a bit of distance between us.

Passive Aggression

Perhaps the most weaselly construction of all is the passive voice. Saying, for example, that “mistakes were made”—a favorite dodge of politicians—is a way of absolving oneself of responsibility. Corporations do this as well. An announcement that “your flight has been cancelled” implies that the airline is not at fault. But in the context of a relationship, failing to take responsibility for one’s actions can engender feelings of mistrust and doubt.

Communication is a fine balancing act that involves giving voice to your feelings while not violating the norms of one’s culture. Politeness sometimes causes us to pull our punches, and weasel words can be an effective way to soften the blow. The problem is that they sometimes undercut what we are trying to say.

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