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Weasel Words

I recently read a lot of Katie Funk Wiebe's work. I came away enriched on many levels, but one small thing of value was learning about "weasel words," which I had never heard of before.

I recognized them instantly once described, as the language that I spoke all too often, unwittingly.

In her book, You Never Gave Me a Name, Katie wrote that one of her husband's professors at Syracuse University told her that she used too many "weasel words" like "perhaps" to avoid saying what she meant. A few paragraphs later, she tells how she ended an appeal for reason, by saying, "Perhaps I am wrong in this," and says, "There was that weasel word 'perhaps' again.'

From that moment on I noticed weasel words every time I wrote them or said them, and they seemed to pervade my emails with alarming frequency. I realized how often I weakened a point I really meant, by giving the receiver a way out of agreeing, in order to avoid being "wrong." Suddenly I found myself rereading statements that I thought I had made, only to find that I hadn't made them at all, but only a vague allusion to what I meant! 

It was an epiphany, and it has changed the way I communicate. I now aim to be straightforward, to ask directly for what I need, say what I mean because I mean it, and don't bury the power in wording that saps the life out of the point I am making.

Weasel words: Politicians use them on purpose; they are endemic in government-speak--but some of us have no idea that we are infected!

Out with weasel words I say--and in with an opposite concept--representing oneself authentically and clearly. No more fluff and fog.


Anonymous said…
I am guilty of using such words, it comes from trying to be politically correct. As a Christian, you also try not to offend. Yet I agree, it weakens your points. I do find it hard not using open words, as I don't want to impose my opinions on others, just have them consider it. I guess it really depends on what you are writing and who you are writing to. Some of these non-weasel word folks are the same folks that don't believe in ever saying "sorry", as it shows weakness. Hmmmmm....
This interests me greatly. Can you give an example of other weasle words? An maybe a sentence with and without the words. I'm thinking I might be guilty of this as well. I'd like to learn a little more.
Belinda Burston said…
Hi Dave, Wikipedia says :) :)
"A weasel word (also, anonymous authority) is an informal term[1] for words and phrases aimed at creating an impression that a specific and/or meaningful statement has been made, when in fact only a vague or ambiguous claim has been communicated, enabling the specific meaning to be denied if the statement is challenged>"
An example given is:
"It has been claimed that..." (By whom, where, when?)
My own usage seems glaring to me in previous communication with people but I hope these examples help. I see you as so clear in communication that it is hard to imagine you being a guilty party. :)
Belinda Burston said…
Dear Anonymous. Yes, trying not to offend is part of the problem. In my work role I need to support people in making changes to their approach and out of trying to be sensitive I realize that what I think I said and what I actually said can be very different. People can deal with information that is clear. Information that is vague is not fair to them, and creates greater anxiety, thereby being counterproductive!
Belinda Burston said…
Sorry, Dave, I didn't do what you asked because I was in a rush. I thought later that the best way of describing weasel words is saying something indirectly rather than directly. For instance:
"Would someone be able to take on...?"
rather than, "Betty-Lynn, will you please..?"
Thanks Belinda, and I do think I'm guilty of this sometimes ... a lot in certain circumstances.
Belinda Burston said…
Dave, then I am in very good company and if were weasel royalty, our thrones are now vacant! :)
Anonymous said…
Ewww - I admit that example makes me feel uncomfortable, unless it was my job to delegate. Personally I find the people don't like to be told to do something (unless they are there to be delegated to). If people have some choice in the decision, they are usually more committed to the "project". When I've written manuals or curriculum I've felt free to stick to the facts in clear precise language, but teaching and involvement in class needs a more flexible, firm, yet cooperative approach. Even in my personal life, my husband doesn't like the "Honey, will you please bring up the coffee urn." He prefers, "Honey, the next time you are coming up, can you please bring up the coffee urn?" It gives choice rather than command. I guess I get the weasel crown!!! ha ha
Belinda Burston said…
It depends on what you want to communicate, and the context, as you said.

In the example you gave, do you need the coffee urn now, or do you really just want your husband to bring it up "the next time" he's coming up? Either is fine, it's just saying what you need.

I've struggled with taking responsibility for the response of the person I'm asking and therefore not being clear.

In Katie Funk Wiebe's case, she was speaking up for women's rights and voice in a denomination that culturally had not believed they should have a voice and yet she was doing so by using small words that ironically disqualified and weakened what she said!

I agree with what you said about the difference between curriculum writing and classroom interaction and there is a difference between business/professional interactions and personal communications.
Brave Raven said…
As a weasel-worder, my intentions are mostly to be kind. I hate when people sound bossy and I consciously avoid being "that person." I think it might also be a Canadian thing. Our compulsion to use the word "sorry" might be a clue. See what I did there? Might be rather than is. Oy. I need help.
Belinda Burston said…
Brave Raven, too funny! Now I'm feeling badly that I made anyone else feel that they need help when I truly only meant to share my self discovery. :) It's been helpful to me to be more straightforward but I hope I'm not sounding bossy, although I could be. Yikes!
Brave Raven said…
You are certainly not bossy. ;)

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