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weasel words

Weasel words give the impression of taking a firm position while avoiding commitment to any specific claim.

Advertisements tell us that certain products help or may help (prevent, stop or fight) this or that. A toothpaste helps fight tooth decay. A new drug may help relieve pain. Note that the ads do not say specifically what the product will or can do. The only weaker claim they could make would be that their products may or may not help this or that.

One of the greatest weasel words is 'only.' What is the difference between pork bellies that are $9.95 a lug and pork bellies that are only $9.95 a lug? The latter sounds like you are getting a great deal. The word ‘only’ suggests that the price is low. Those special offers for a limited time only of only a limited supply imply that you better order now before it is too late. ‘Only’ can also suggest that a statistic is low. “Only half of all women who have been married one time say they would marry the same man if they had it to do over again, according to a new survey.” If that were true then only half would not marry the same man again.

‘Almost’ is almost as slippery as only. Some products promise almost miraculous cures or almost superhuman healing secrets. Others promise to almost instantly get your dishes virtually spot-free. In other words, the product will not get your dishes spot-free instantly.

Another favorite expression of advertisers is up to, as in "This pen lasts up to 20 per cent longer." The ad does not say that the pen will last 20 percent longer, but even if it did it still wouldn’t mean much since it doesn’t say longer than what.

What does it mean when a package of almonds has the words 15% more on it? Who knows? Or what is being promised by an ad that says "Come on down and save up to 50 per cent.” Even if you save nothing you still save within the promised range. The ad says that the most you can save is 50 percent; it says nothing about the least you can save. In fact, it does not even say that you will actually save anything—although that is clearly the inference the advertiser hopes the buyer will make.

What do the following mean? They sound like they're expressing something specific, but are they?

"Homeopathy helped me."

"Prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care."

"The life of the style Five centers on their thinking. Healthy Fives ... can be, if not geniuses, then extraordinarily accomplished....When Fives become less healthy, they tend to withdraw." "

"This is an ALL-NATURAL substance that is CLINICALLY proven."

"Like acupuncture, acupressure or deep therapeutic massage, we believe that placing EFX energetic dots near specific energy centers or chakras, may promote or enhance the energy flow along the main meridian channels." [That's how it was written. What can I say?]

"These findings support the hypothesis that organophosphate exposure, at levels common among US children, may contribute to ADHD prevalence."

A June 1900 issue of Century Magazine has been credited with the origin of the expression 'weasel words.' See The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (New York: Facts on File Publications,1987). “Weasel words are words that suck all of the life out of the words next to them just as a weasel sucks an egg and leaves the shell.” Weasel words were first associated with politicians, who seem to have a penchant for saying things like “The public must be duly protected,” instead of “The public must be protected.”

further reading

Carroll, Robert Todd. 2005. Becoming a Critical Thinker A Guide for the New Millennium 2nd edition Pearson.

Last updated October 27, 2015

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