Weasel Words and Phrases

(The Nationalist, 19 January 2007)


‘Words are precious cups of meaning’, wrote Saint Augustine. Today, his writings fill 29 large volumes of Migne’s Patrology, but they were written in the days of quill and ink on papyrus or parchment, so he knew something about words. And the Bible says, ‘A word is better than a gift’. (Sirach 18.16) Words can communicate; it is what they are meant to do. But they may also be used to confuse and conceal. Thus misusing them has a long history, the Genesis story of the serpent in the garden of Eden being an early example of this doubtful art.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister also knew about words, and how to manipulate them. He said the secret of propaganda is that if a lie is told often enough, it will be believed. He also said that people will believe a big lie more easily than a small one. Whereas Jesus said, ‘Let your Yes be Yes, and your No be No’. (Matthew 5.37) In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say.

Here are a few examples of weasel words from present-day usage, with an interpretation:

  • Breakdown in communication: I was too lazy to answer.
  • Common sense: a rule of thumb you make up as you go along, in line with prevailing prejudices, hunches, and ignorance.
  • Extremist: one who disagrees with you vigorously.
  • Human resources: people who are there to be used and then dumped.
  • Joy-riding: killing-riding.
  • Mis-statement: a lie.
  • Moderate: one who agrees with you.
  • ‘Recreational’ drugs: Those you don’t want to feel guilty about using. (How about the cost of such “recreation” to the child working in a coca refining factory in Colombia, or to the dealer shot in a territorial dispute?)
  • Right-thinking people: those who agree with you.
  • System failure: a failure by individuals who refuse to accept responsibility for it.
  • There’s no smoke without fire: when you regard rumour, gossip, and suspicion as evidence.

Some weasel words and phrases from politics and war:

  • Clarification: a lie or denial issued to obscure a previous statement you wish you hadn’t made.
  • Collateral damage: civilians killed in a military campaign.
  • Conflict: a war you do not wish to describe as such, in the hope that the Geneva Convention will not apply.
  • Disappear: to “disappear” someone is to murder them and secretly dispose of their body.
    Ethnic cleansing: expelling, or murdering, people for racial motives.
  • National security: a blanket term to excuse or justify almost anything you want to do.
  • Public diplomacy: propaganda; also known as ‘strategic influence’.
  • Purge: murdering those you see as your enemies, e.g. Stalin’s “purges”.
  • Rendition: kidnapping people you suspect of a crime, and taking them to another country for indefinite detention without trial or charge.
  • Repetitive administration of legitimate force: beating a person to death by multiple blows, none of which, by itself, would be fatal. (As with stoning, no single blow causes death; it’s the cumulative effect that does it, so no individual has used illegitimate force.)
  • Terrorist: someone who kills civilians on your side of the divide.
  • Terrorist suspect: a person, not convicted of any crime, whom a government wishes to see convicted.
  • Transfer tube: a body bag.
  • Undefended soft target: a city you have so scruple about destroying.
  • War on terror/tyranny, evil/war: war on anything or anybody you don’t like. They may be yesterday’s or tomorrow’s allies.

(Compiled with help from Steven Poole, Unspeak, Little, Brown & Co., London, 2006)


For those in a hurry: ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’. (Humpty Dumpty, in Lewis Carroll’s, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter VI)