Beware of weasel words

You need to be very careful that these words don’t come back and bite you.

While the use of weasel words is a common advertising practice, you need to be very careful that these words don’t come back and bite you.

What are weasel words? A weasel word is a word or expression aimed at creating the impression that a specific or meaningful statement has been made yet enables the user to avoid being clear or direct.

The expression “weasel word” is named after the egg-eating habits of weasels. A weasel will suck out the inside of an egg, leaving it appear intact to the casual observer. Upon examination, the egg is discovered to be hollow. Words or claims that appear substantial at first but upon analysis disintegrate into meaninglessness or empty phrases are called weasels.

The expression “weasel words” was first used in North America around 1900, amidst a controversy between President Theodore Roosevelt and author Stewart Chaplin as to who coined the phrase first. However, its roots can be traced back to William Shakespeare who came close to being first in 1600 when he wrote in As You Like It “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.”

Bottom line: the concept of weasel words has been with us for a long time. Here are a few recognizable words and phrases that are commonly used in advertising and communications today: Help, new, improved, better, fresh, virtually, like, up to, value added, acts fast, fight, could and feels like all fall under the category of weasel words.

William Lutz — American linguist at Rutgers University, who specialized in the use of plain language and the avoidance of doublespeak (deceptive language) — wrote: With these words I can sell you anything. They were used in an essay that is often quoted when the question of whether to weasel or not is discussed.

For example, think of the word ‘help’ and how often it is used as a qualifier when making a statement: helps stop, helps fight, helps overcome, helps you feel, helps eliminate, helps you look. They all create the impression of a positive statement but when and if the consumer gives any thought to these claims they will realize that whatever the product or service is, it does not actually stop, does not overcome and does not eliminate.

The greatest danger, particularly for businesses, is the ongoing systemic use of these words in order to convey a message. At some point in time the person you’re trying to sell to or impress will clue in and say, ‘Yeah, right!’ In other words, what you are saying becomes a credibility and loss of trust issue. The problems arise when the statement cannot be supported by solid, factual information.

As today’s consumer becomes more savvy in their search for goods and services they can believe in and companies they can trust, it is critical that if you are going to try and use what are classified as weasel words, then you better make sure you have good, factual information to clarify what you are claiming your product or service can do.

With the use of the Internet and the click of a mouse or keypad, it does not take much to find out if indeed you have the lowest price, a virtually service-free product or the best of anything.

As George Orwell might have said about weasel words: They are designed to make lies sound truthful, selling snake oil sound respectable and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind. Is this how you want your message to be perceived?

Joe Smith is a communications consultant and an accomplished fine artist. He can be reached via email at joesmith@shaw.ca.

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