“Weasel words” are used to evade a question or an issue. They are a way to avoid direct statements of fact or principle.
Weasel words are deliberately ambiguous; their double meaning leaves people guessing as to what the speaker is trying to say. The expression grows out of the supposed sneaky habits of real-world weasels. According to folklore, weasels can suck up the content of an egg without damaging its shell. To the eye, the egg looks intact, but in fact it’s been drained.
The phrase was first coined by the writer Stewart Chaplin, who used it in a short story – “The Stained-Glass Political Platform” – in 1900. In the story, a writer explains the phrase to a friend of his:
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. If you heft the egg afterward it ’s as light as a feather, and not very filling when you ’re hungry; but a basketful of them would make quite a show, and would bamboozle the unwary.
As William Safire pointed out, President Theodore Roosevelt helped to popularize the term; Roosevelt also expanded the meaning slightly. He famously gave this example of weasel words:
You can have universal training, or you can have voluntary training, but when you use the word ‘voluntary’ to qualify the word ‘universal,’ you are using a ‘weasel word’; it has sucked all the meaning out of ‘universal.’ The two words flatly contradict one another.
Politicians are often accused of “weaseling” or using “weasel words.” President Bill Clinton got that criticism a lot. Take the 1995 piece in the Baltimore Sun (“Clinton’s weasel words don’t exactly help Foster”) in which the writer grumbles about Clinton’s treatment of his nominee to be surgeon general: “Try counting how many “weasel” words are hidden in Bill Clinton’s ringing support for his nominee. Heck, I’ll make it easy for you. I’ll put them in italics.”
Weasel words are the politician’s way of covering up uncomfortable secrets, whether in their own behavior or in their policies. Weasel words are often the same as legalistic language, as the Chicago Tribune made clear when it accused Clinton of talking “like a slippery lawyer.”
“You won’t have to use weasel words and talk like a slippery lawyer when you’re asked if you ever seduced a young female employee, or if you told her to lie about it under oath. You won’t have to vaguely deny anything. You don’t have to send your henchmen out on damage-control missions to tell reporters that the girl is “mentally unstable.”
Barack Obama’s critics also complained, on occasion, that the president was using weasel words to disguise unpopular military actions. As Rob Long wrote in the National Review (“In war or business, weasel words come back to bite you”):
This week, Mr Obama made some linguistic adjustments. It wasn’t a “kinetic military action” but a “time-limited, scope-limited military action”. All of this complicated parsing came to a head when he spoke to the nation on Tuesday night and did his best to define what all these weasel words mean. In the end, he never really used the “w” word.