Weasel: In the wild they’re welcome. In our language they’re a pest.

Weasel: In the wild they’re welcome. In our language they’re a pest.

This cute fellow is a weasel. They’re small, highly active mammals found in most parts of the world other than Australia and Antarctica.

Farmers hate them as they frequently kill rabbits and chickens, and young geese and ducks. In some cultures, weasels were associated with bad luck or disease.

A myth is born: the weasel

In 1600, in his play As You Like It, Shakespeare writes:

“I can suck the melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.”


From then on, people believed that weasels steal eggs, consume their contents and leave the empty shells, though naturalists today aren’t sure if that’s true. In 1900, writer Steward Chaplin said,

“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.”

Steward Chaplin

What are weasel words and why do we use them?

They are the main ingredients of the pompous nonsense so loved by corporate spokesmen and women, politicians, military and police officers, academics and anyone else who is or imagines themselves in a position of power.

They are the awkward words and phrases used to bury or minimize the truth under the corpses of dead clichés, machine writing and the barbed wire loops of twisted logic. They are the official words we love to hate.

Find the meaning of this, if you can

“In addition, each construct requires the central office staff to engage deeply with the concepts that underpin each of the initiatives…[and]…a range of processes have been used to explore issues and gather feedback from different stakeholders to inform our thinking.” 

From Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Clichés & Management Jargon

We’re not sure either. It might be saying that we have some ideas that we’ll think about, then see if other people like them.

How to destroy your weasels

The first step is to know them when you see them. Listen carefully, if you can bear it, to officials on radio and television and read their statements in the press.

Recognize the words and phrases they all use to avoid giving a straight answer to anything, especially if it involves a commitment to actually doing something we can check on later.

Then follow these simple steps:

  • Use ordinary, everyday words. The more you try to dress your writing in fancy clothes, the less you reveal.
  • Tell the truth. If you’re having to cut staff don’t say you’re realigning resources to match clients’ needs. These are people like you and me we’re talking about, not resources.
  • Use technical words and phrases only when giving expert testimony in court or when dealing with colleagues in the same profession.
  • If you’re asked for an opinion or to state a position and you can’t or don’t wish to, don’t try to bluff your way out. Apologize and say you have no comment to make immediately but you will respond later.
  • Put yourself in the mind of the reader or listener. They have very limited time to concentrate on what you have to say so get to the point quickly and clearly.
  • Buy a dictionary of weasel words and phrases. Watson’s is highly recommended.

We’ll leave the last word to Dr D Jeanne Patterson who might be a real person or a machine that arranges simple words and phrases into nonsense:

“Overall, our results indicated that the SEC’s alarm over the shareholder wealth effects of restatements is valid, but primarily for a subset of restatements with large income effects that involve fraudulent activity and management that cannot or will not self-identify misstatements.”

Dr D Jeanne Patterson

Business writing is nowhere near as varied or as challenging as the prose of a professional writer. We use and sometimes over-use the same words and phrases frequently because our communications are focused on the subjects that are important to us at work.

Call up the last few reports, emails or letters you’ve written recently. Highlight all the weasel words and phrases that actually make your communications slower and more confusing, specially to someone outside the business.

Make them the foundations of a new and valuable writing tool: My List of Forbidden Words and Phrases. Whenever you come across a new example, add it to the list and share it with colleagues.

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