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Uses and Abuses of Language
1. A weasel word is defined as: an ambiguous word meant to deprive a statement of its force or evade direct commitment; one that retreats from taking a direct or forthright position. A weasel word appears to make little or no change in the content of a statement while sucking out all or most of its meaning.
2. The name 'weasel word' is derived from the act of 'weaseling out' of providing a reference to support a statement. It should be noted also that a weasel makes a small hole in a bird's egg and sucks out the content.
A person using a weasel word in a persuasive argument can claim to be right if the argument turns out well, and if it turns out badly then the person can claim they included a qualifying weasel word to temper their claim.
Common weasel words are: perhaps, maybe, may be, could be, virtually, sort of, potentially, possibly, and arguably.
(The above weasel words do have their proper place in some communications between people, but they should not be used in presenting an argument that intends to persuade and presupposes some commitment.)
3. Weasel words are used to draw attention away from adverse evidence. They are used intentionally to manipulate an audience. The speaker heightens the expectations of his audience knowing that he cannot meet those expectations.
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.
4. 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:
a) "American Express will replace your lost checks just about any time, any place."
(Notice the weasel words 'just about'. So, it's unclear when they WON'T replace your checks)
b) "Select quite possibly has the cleanest milk anywhere."
(Notice the weasel words 'quite possibly'. A very empty claim indeed.)
c) "... is now 20% cheaper"
(It is now 20% cheaper than what?)
d) "There is more goodness in ..."
(How is this goodness measured and of what does it consist?)
e) "More people than ever are using ..."
(What does that mean in numbers?)
f) "New and improved ..."
(Improved in which qualities? If it is improved, how can it also be new ?)
g) "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?)
One way to counter phrases such as these is to consciously complete them to oneself and thus establish in one's mind their validity or lack thereof.
5. Politicians using weasel words:
a) Alan Greenspan: "Employment will begin to increase more quickly before long."
(Notice the weasel words 'before long'. How long is that?)
b) John Kerry: "It may take a new president to bring about the policy changes that he said are necessary to ensure success and reduce the risk to U.S. forces in Iraq."
(Notice the weasel words 'may take'. It's not a very committed statement, is it?)
c) When they asked Bill Clinton if he ever smoked marijuana, he replied: "I experimented with it, but never inhaled."
(Notice the weasel word 'experimented'. He didn't want to lie there, but also didn't want the negative political consequences of saying that he definitely used marijuana)
d) When they asked Senator Charles Robb whether he had an affair with a former Miss Virginia, he replied: "No I had not. It was just a nude massage".
e) John McCain: "If current trends continue we could potentially close the gap with Obama."
6. Note that many horoscopes that appear in newspapers tend to include weasel words. For ex: 'You could perhaps meet a mysterious stranger today.'
Weasel Words on the Internet
wikipedia on Weasel Words