The meaning of the term “weasel words” has nothing to do with the tendency of weasels to crawl about unnoticed and insinuate themselves into the sentences of innocent politicians; it has to do with a rather picturesque analogy for telling lies.
~ John Waters, Irish Times, July 8, 1997
Weasels are bold and ferocious predators, with an insidious reputation for deception. Folklore says they have a propensity to suck the contents out of eggs and leave the empty shell intact. Yes, weasels can be vicious, but weasel words can be even worse.
What Are Weasel Words?
Weasel words are vague, misleading statements that give authors an escape route while allowing them to plead innocent to any intentional dishonesty.
Weasel words can be used deceptively, but they can also just be confusing for readers. As a writer or speaker, your job is to communicate as clearly as possible, so that’s why you should never use weasel words—because they do not communicate your ideas or intentions clearly.
The Skeptics Dictionary says “Weasel words give the impression of taking a firm position while avoiding commitment to any specific claim.”
The Phrases.org website provides the history of the term:
“[I]t wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century in the USA that the phrase ‘weasel words’ first occurred in print. In 1900, Stewart Chaplin published a story in The Century Illustrated Magazine titled ‘Stained Glass Political Platform,’ which contains this exchange:
“I am the chairman of your committee on platform” … “And like most platforms,” continued St. John, “it contains plenty of what I call weasel words.”
“And what may weasel words be?”
“Why, weasel words are words that suck all the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks an egg and leaves the shell.”
Weasel Word Examples
Here are some of the most common weasel words; make sure they don’t end up in your writing!
A bit: “A bit” is deliberately vague and informal. It is intended to modify adjectives and acts as an adverb. It can cast aspersion where none is warranted, or imply that a serious situation less alarming than it really is.
Almost: Sincere, but not quite. “Almost” is used to indicate that something is not completely the case … but is actually nearly the case. It’s a way of denying something while actually admitting it at the same time.
Basically: This summarizes some aspects of accuracy while minimizing inaccuracies. It lets a shady author give a not-quite-honest account of a complex situation.
Can or Could: You can, but will you? You could, but would you? Instead of providing helpful context, can/could is a weasel-y way to waffle without of giving a direct answer.
Fairly: “Fairly” is used to express something of a moderate to high degree. It’s like being subtly assertive in a very subtle way. “Fairly certain” is an oxymoron.
In a sense: This phrase promotes one interpretation of a statement or situation while hiding the others. If you say that something is true “in a sense,” you also mean that it is only partly true, or true in just one way.
Just: This adverb means “barely” or “a little.” Statements like “inflation fell to just over 4% on a “narrow margin,” also make things less serious than they really are.
May / Might: expresses the possibility that something will happen or will be done. It’s a shady way of convincing others that it happens more often than it does; it also implies that something is true although not very likely.
Moderately: “Moderately” may be the least weasel-y word in this list, but because it doesn’t provide a distinct measurement, interpretation is left to the reader. It’s an option for a writer who wants to avoid responsibility for giving questionable information.
Often: This adverb indicates “many times”; it implies accuracy based on probability, just like “might” or “may.”
Quite: This expresses the utmost or most absolute extent or degree of information provided. It adds weight to your words, allowing you to be subtly assertive or nonchalantly dismissive.
Rather: “Rather” is a degree adverb that adds unspoken preference or judgment, especially when talking about something unpleasant or undesirable.
Relatively: Describes something in comparison to other things of a similar type, implying that a deeper explanation or reasoning is not needed.
Seem(s): This weakens a statement or description to make it less assertive or forceful. It hides or denigrates an opinion, even one that’s strongly held.
Some or many: These terms indicate implied consensus, which states opinion as fact without indicating whose it is. Some people believe? Who, exactly? Like “often,” these terms allow you to sidestep sincerity and escape specifics.
Somehow: Somehow indicates a reason that is not known or specified. It tries to be convincing without being definite.
Somewhat: This weasel word lets you play it safe. It implies that something is true to a limited extent or degree, but leaves room to deny it later.
Usually: Usually tries to convince others that under normal conditions something typically happens. It almost makes an adverse reaction seem impossible. It’s like saying that “Contraceptives usually work 90% of the time.” It could, however, hide adverse reactions in other circumstances.
Writing and speaking are ways to inform and educate, and developing the talent to deliver a persuasive idea is a powerful skill. Sadly, like weapons of mass destruction, weasel words can debase language for deception or personal gain.
Although it may take practice to remove all weasel words from your vocabulary, it’s worth the effort to produce writing with integrity.
The fewer weasel words you use, the stronger your writing will be.
For more tips on becoming a better writer, take a look at these posts: