The exit of Donald Trump and his ever-changing team of bare-faced liars may lead to more honesty in American politics in 2021 – and therefore in some US emulators like Australia – but it is unlikely to end a more insidious form of linguistic dishonesty – weasel words.
Also called doublespeak, these are words or phrases used to hide or justify something bad the speaker is ashamed to have exposed.
Named after a creature that is traditionally believed to be a sneaky and untrustworthy, weasel words have existed for millennia in most languages, from political rhetoric in Ancient Greece through to the industrial-scale propaganda of both World Wars.
More than four centuries ago, in one of the cleverest eulogies ever written, Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony exposes the lies behind Brutus’ argument for killing “ambitious” Julius Caesar by sarcastically and repeatedly labelling Brutus “an honourable man”.
Since then, the development of doublespeak and weasel words have been turned into an art form – in the murky realms of the dark arts. Futurist George Orwell set his world of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four, just two decades short of the George W. Bush administration’s abduction of the English language for the so-called “war on terror” and the need to justify the unjustifiable, such as lying about the existence in Iraq of “weapons of mass destruction”, describing the suicides of imprisoned terror suspects as “asymmetric warfare” or renaming the torture of suspects as “debriefing”.
It could be argued doublespeak reached a pinnacle with the current generation of political and business leaders typified by Donald Trump and his cronies, although, to be fair, Trump himself has always been more comfortable using blatant lies uttered with apparently naive shamelessness than with the hard work required to invent seemingly defensible terms to describe the inexcusable.
But who will ever forget White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway’s invention of “alternative facts” to justify obvious falsehoods? Or Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani stating “Truth isn’t truth”? Or Trump himself, in the middle of the worst health crisis in a century, repeatedly calling COVID-19 “kung flu” or “the China virus” to suit his own anti-China agenda.
And while slogans should never be taken too seriously in politics, what on earth does “Make America Great Again” even mean as a practicable policy and strategic plan?
The doublespeak type of weasel words are different to those that are simply used as padding, a distraction or to give the speaker time to get into the main part of their argument. These include, for example, “with respect”, “if I’m honest”, “it’s not for me to comment but …”. They will overload both your sentences and the reader’s/listener’s attention so they can usually be dropped altogether, as we explain in Chapter 11 of The News Manual.
Nor are weasel words (doublespeak) just jargon, though as we explain in Chapter 11, some words and phrases are the same and are used for the same reason – to obscure the real meaning. Jargon has another, more justifiable use when it is part of the specialist vocabulary of a trade or profession. Doctors when speaking to each other often rely on jargon to convey specialist meanings in an efficient way, though they should not use it when trying to explain a complex idea to an uninformed patient. Neither should journalists repeat such specialist jargon unless they know their listeners or readers will understand.
But that is not what we are talking about with weasel doublespeak.
rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it
The doublespeak kind of weasel words that are used to hide bad news, avoid blame or confuse the listener may come in the form of euphemisms, dodgy metaphors, bureaucratese, inflated language or simple gobbledygook and should not be used by journalists, though they can be quoted when attributed to someone else.
A journalist’s job is to inform and explain in words your readers, listeners or viewers can understand, so you should ask the speaker to explain what they mean by a word or phrase that is obviously doublespeak. The simplest polite way is to ask something like: “You say the matter is under active consideration – what does that mean to ordinary people like my listeners/readers?” If you are asking face-to-face, a puzzled look will help you to make the point. If the interviewee declines to give more details or clarify the matter, you can quote them and then look elsewhere for the plain truth to enlighten your audience.
In The New Doublespeak, in 1996 Professor William Lutz wrote: “Doublespeak is language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. It is language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. Doublespeak is language that avoids or shifts responsibility, language that is at variance with its real or purported meaning. It is language that conceals or prevents thought; rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it.”
On January 12 2021, the Australasian Virology Society confirmed to The Age and the Sydney Morning Heraldthat it supported an immediate pause in plans to roll out the AstraZeneca vaccine until research proved it was effective enough to achieve herd immunity. But following a furious internal debate, the president of the virology society contacted The Age and the Herald late on Tuesday evening to say it had changed its position and no longer opposed the rollout of the vaccine. When asked why the society was changing its official position at the last moment, its president, Professor Gilda Tachedjian, said: “That’s for us to know and you to find out”.
Interestingly, while military-speak is full of jargon such as “collateral damage” (read: killing the innocent) and “enhanced coercive interrogation techniques” (read: torture), senior military officers tend not pussyfoot around with weasel words when the going gets hot; there is no room for doublespeak on a battlefield when lives depend on clarity and directness. For example, when asked whether US National Guard troops would be armed to deal with further riots against the Capitol, General Daniel Hokanson, said: “Obviously, we’re very concerned that we want our individuals to have the right to self-defence … and if the senior leadership determines that that’s the right posture to be in, then that is something that we will do.”
Although it was padded with a small amount of waffle, General Hokanson’s directness came as a refreshing breeze of authenticity amidst ever-increasing gusts of weaselry in public life.
The military are not, of course, the same in every country. In January 2021, Myanmar’s generals, upset by their poor performance in national elections, staged another military coup, locking up the Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint, senior national and state ministers and hundreds of opponents. Seeing advantage in supporting the military coup, Chinese state propaganda quoted the generals as simply carrying out “a major cabinet reshuffle”.
The following are just a few examples of doublespeak weasel words in current circulation.
[Entries marked “(Crikey)” were adapted from an article in the online magazine of that name written by Charlie Lewis on 30 December 2020.]
Abundance of caution: Used when the speaker/writer doesn’t want anything to be done about something. They are not being inactive, just abundantly cautious. (Crikey)
Active consideration: Saying a matter is under active consideration avoids having to reveal what practical actions the politician or company executive is taking. It sounds more real than “under consideration”, which can mean anything someone is thinking about. A journalist confronted with the excuse “under active consideration” can reasonably ask: “What does that mean in practice, in words our listeners/readers would understand?”
Administrative error: The wrongdoing was not actually committed by the people responsible, but was just an error in the process – not even a mistake and certainly not a misdeed. (Crikey)
Advanced interrogation techniques: Torture.
Boots on the ground: This cliché describes sending soldiers into battle or at least into combat readiness (i.e. waiting to fight). It de-personalises the fact the boots are worn by men and women who may be killed or wounded and that other men, women and children may be killed by their actions. [See collateral damage.]
Collateral damage: Often used by politicians and public servants (especially the military) to avoid saying people were killed or injured. People are collateral damage when the speaker is responsible for the harm; they become “men, women and children” when the speaker is attacking someone else for doing it.
Commercial-in-confidence: The catch-all term used by governments and corporations to deny information to journalists, citizens, taxpayers and customers. For example, for eight years the Coalition Government has kept most financial details about Australia’s biggest-ever infrastructure project secret from taxpayers/voters despite it costing up to $90 billion. Being both “commercial” and “confidential”, this excuse is so broad it can be applied to almost any activity undertaken by any organisation, government or private sector. One problem when confronted with “commercial-in-confidence” is YDKWYDK – you don’t know what you don’t know. Not only will the user refuse to divulge perfectly acceptable information but they refuse to say even what that information is or why it is “commercial-in-confidence”. It’s a circular argument and there is no magic trick to getting such people to divulge information they say is commercial-in-confidence, so go into investigate journalist mode and find someone who will talk.
Debrief: The George W. Bush era either invented a whole new compendium of weasel words or simply exposed existing doublespeak to the light of day. “Debriefing” of captured terror suspects by the CIA used an accepted and acceptable term for asking your troops to tell you what happened on their mission and turned it on its head to describe interrogation of the enemy, often using “advanced interrogation techniques”, i.e. torture.
Dynamic pricing: A seller’s term for what a buyer would call “price gouging”, i.e. raising the price of something when it becomes popular. While changes in supply and demand is a cornerstone of market economics, using a forward-moving, energetic term like “dynamic” usually disguises the fact the prices change in only one direction – upwards.
External career development opportunities: So laughably obvious as weasel words, this phrase used by ABC Australia’s chairman Justin Milne left no-one in doubt he was asking the corporation’s managing director to sack troublesome journalist Emma Alberici. This proved the “serious media” can be just as guilty as anyone in utilising doublespeak and it won the Plain English Foundation’s 2018 top award for worst word or phrase.
Extraordinary rendition: There are probably many thousand weasel terms invented by governments and corporations in particular to avoid telling the plain truth about something shameful. But one which matches “collateral damage” for cynicism is the term “extraordinary rendition”. This is a process by which a government secretly moves a captive to a country where laws preventing torture to obtain information are not so strict. United States agencies used extraordinary rendition after 9/11 to move terror suspects to countries such as Egypt where they could be tortured away from the oversight of US laws. In one sense, “extraordinary rendition is not an effective weasel word because it grew to have only one meaning, which everyone understood, i.e. kidnapping for torture.
Investigations are ongoing: Similar to “the matter is under consideration” and “commercial-in-confidence”, these phrases appear to be sensible excuses, even legal requirements (see sub judice). They are, however, also often used in an attempt to forestall any further questioning by journalists. Unless there is clearly a good or legal reason by not commenting, journalists should keep asking. Here’s an example of global consultancy conglomerate KPMG trying to cut short discussions about alleged misbehaviour by their UK chairman Bill Michael.
Let go: Used by employers when sacking someone, including making them redundant. It sounds as if the affected employee was eager to leave when, in fact, they were probably fired against their will.
Load shedding: Mainly used when electricity companies cut supplies to areas of consumers, often as a result of excessive demand, storms etc. It is one example of a category of doublespeak that uses jargon from within an industry to make its behaviour either obscure or unthreatening. A power company’s “load shedding” is the householder’s “power cut”. [See “Let go” above.]
National security and homeland security: Although both terms have clear and justifiable uses, they are often also used to halt further discussion of issues governments don’t want to reveal to citizens simple because they are embarrassing. The misuse of a term such as “national security” simply to save political embarrassment brings its whole usage into disrepute and contributes to a general mistrust of government, most obviously and ironically amongst people such as the supporters of populist politicians such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Rodrigo Duterte and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. [See also “commercial in confidence”.]
Noted: Short for “we know about a problem but are not doing anything about it”. Also a favourite of official reports to avoid taking action is “support in principle”. A good example of its use by Australian governments faced with the extinction of koalas can be found here.
Regret: Used to avoid saying sorry when there is something to apologise for. Regret refers only to the speaker’s feeling about the issue, not to the wrongdoing itself. Anyone can feel regret that something bad has happened, but only the person responsible for the wrongdoing can genuinely apologise. When someone is expected to apologise but will not say “sorry”, they express their regret. (Crikey)
There is an even worse variant sometimes used by company spokespeople and politicians – “we regret people feel offended”. Far from apologising or even expressing sorrow about the harm for which they were responsible, the speaker is effectively blaming people for feeling offended.
The people understand/the people know: The speaker/writer absolves themselves from any blame by calling up a mythical and usually undefined “people” as support. It is similar to “the silent majority” (Crikey)
Rebirth: In financial circles, what happens with the remnants of a company left after bankruptcy. When one of China’s biggest conglomerates HNA collapsed, the New York Times reported (perhaps tongue in cheek):“The focus of the bankruptcy and restructuring is not about ‘destroying,’ but about ‘building,’” one commentary in the Shanghai Security News said. “It can also be seen as a ‘rebirth.’”
Silent majority: So silent or so numerous that they don’t see the need to speak for themselves. When you can count the number of people for or against an issue, they stop being the silent majority and become “surveys show”. Surveys, of course, need to be supported by evidence, so the silent majority is often invoked when surveys fail to support the speaker/writer’s argument.
Support in principle: See “Noted” above.
This isn’t the time: Hiding behind one event to avoid doing something about another issue. With some issues for some politicians and civic leaders there is never the right time for some things. (Crikey)
Take it on notice: Means “I don’t want to answer that now so I will go away and maybe – or maybe not – find the answer. In some formal settings such as public inquiries, the minister or public servant may genuinely need to go away to find the answer – which they will then be expected to feed back to the questioner. But even then it is often just a ploy to avoid answering.
Under consideration: Means “If we had anything to be proud of we would tell you now”. For a more weaselly version, see “investigations are ongoing” above.
Unhoused: This has crept into officialese because, well, “homeless” seems to humanise the victims too much for the tender sensibilities of politicians who fail to find them homes.
Within the rules/within the law: Doublespeak for “morally unjustifiable but not against anything in writing”. Politicians are the main exploiters of the distinction between what is ethical and what is legal, which if probably why independent Ipsos polls show they are the most untrustworthy profession in Australia. Ironically, the worst offenders are often politicians who claim deep Christian beliefs; one could power a small town from Jesus spinning in his grave over their hypocrisy.
Have more? If you have any special weasel words or phrases, please send them via our Contact page.
One of the best lists is ‘Weasel Words: The Dictionary of American Doublespeak’ by Paul Wasserman and Don Hausrath, Capital Ideas Book, 2005. Unfortunately, there is no eBook version and the print edition is expensive and hard to find, unless it can be borrowed from your local library.
Another from an American perspective is ‘Spinglish: The Definitive Dictionary of Deliberately Deceptive Language’ by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf, Blue Rider Press, 2015.
And for Australians, there is Don Watson’s classic ‘Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words‘, Vintage Australia, 2005.
And for more on language for journalists generally, you can visit Chapter 10 onwards in The News Manual.