“Weasel Words” can Wreck your Writing: Advice from Etymologist Bryan Garner in Today’s Blog . . .

Today, I return to what I call “wordsmithing”—revisiting word usage from Bryan Garner’s learned volume, Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford UP, 2003).

One especially interesting phrase and concept are “weasel words.”

On the origin of the phrase, Garner cites a speech by Theodore Roosevelt in 1916: “One of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use what have been called weasel words. When a weasel sucks eggs, it sucks the meat out of the egg and leaves it an empty shell. If you use a weasel word after another [,] there is nothing left of the other” (cited in Garner 826-827).

So weasel words are supposed to be “intensives,” but actually weaken a statement. The following are weasel words: “clearly,” “obviously,” “somewhat,” and “very.

Some examples of usage:

  •   “But I had clearly marked the suspicious area with chalk.” (implies that the area was not marked clearly).
  •  “When we arrived, it was obviously too late to call” (implies that it was not too late).
  •  “He was somewhat indifferent to her attentions” (implies he was not indifferent).
  •   “She agreed that it was very true that she had overlooked the child’s needs” (implies that she had not overlooked the child’s needs).

Garner further reports that “some writers have incorrectly assumed that the metaphor suggested itself because of the wriggling, evasive character of the weasel” (827). Although that is not correct, weasel words are nonetheless associated with a subject failing to take responsibility for an action, thought, mood, etc.

Do you find yourself speaking or writing with “weasel words?” How can you return to the action, thought or mood that the “weasel word” modifies, to evaluate the subject’s (e.g. your or others’) potential irresponsibility?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.