The weasel is a small mammal from the Mustelidae family–the largest family in all of Carnivoredom. Weasels and their close relatives are found in nearly every place on Earth. And like their domesticated cousins, ferrets, weasels stand out for their short stubby legs and long slinky over-cooked bigoli bodies.
The weasel’s noodliness–and the awkward tumbling, bouncing, high-speed gait it produces–is undeniably cute. And it does a great job of distracting us from the truth about their nature: they are highly skilled and dangerous predators built to kill.
In fact, the hunting style of these furry little pasta rats closer resembles a jaguar than a small pet you’d keep in your house. And those irresistible noodle bodies? They are engineered to allow a weasel to squeeze into any burrow or nest in order to grab their prey.
Make no mistake: despite what you may see, these guys have motives that are anything but cute or friendly.
Perhaps that’s why they became the namesake of a certain tricky verbal technique often used by people promoting unpopular ideas by dressing them up in a harmless-looking package.
“Weasel words” are the words we use to rebrand the things we say to make them appear credible, palatable, and most importantly, to distract the listener from our actual meaning–something that may be untrue or very unappealing.
Weasel words allow us to say what we want to say while lessening the chance we’ll be challenged or asked to explain our position further. They also help us convert listeners to our point of view, especially if we know our point of view isn’t something they’d ordinarily support. With a well-placed weasel word, you can suck the venom out of anything controversial you want to say (the origin of the term “weasel word” is officially thought to come from the belief that weasels puncture and consume the insides of eggs–“sucking the life” from them, so to speak).
We’re all guilty of using weasel words (if you’ve ever said, “I’m fine” to someone to avoid an argument when you were definitely NOT fine, you’re a card-carrying weasel-worder), but nobody makes use of this technique quite like a politician.
And if you REALLY want to see weasel words in action, look no further than an elected official discussing “Social Security reform.”
Michael Hiltzik, reporter for the Los Angeles Times, published his second column yesterday morning dealing with the sneaky use of weasel words to disguise and promote policies that could more accurately be called “cuts.”
Since the vast majority of Americans condemn cuts to Social Security, you’ll often find the exact same concepts being described in a much different way:
“Reforming Social Security.” “Modernizing our Social Security system.” “Fix Social Security.” “Revamp.” “Revitalize.” “Reshape.”
If this were just a vocabulary list, these would be great words. They are positive and imply a complex plan to improve a beloved program headed for financial trouble.
But this isn’t just a list of good words. These are the words we hear over and over again about our Trust Fund. These words will affect our crucial retirement benefits somehow, so it’s vital we know exactly what they mean.
The problem is we don’t know what they mean. And we aren’t supposed to.
These positive words distract from something unfriendly. At the very least, if they aren’t being used to obfuscate cuts, they’re being used to hide the fact that there is no plan or priority to “fix” the program so many of us are waiting for.
The weasel-wording with Social Security has worked so well, the media and everyday people routinely use these very same words to describe what needs to be done to shore up the Trust Fund. The more we use these words ourselves thinking they mean something good, the harder it is to notice an elected official using them to dodge questions he can’t or doesn’t want to answer.
Part of holding our leaders accountable for making sure our Social Security ends up in beneficiaries’ pockets and our Trust Fund remains financially sound for years to come is holding them accountable for they words they use–especially if they’re telling us absolutely nothing.
So keep an eye out for those pesky weasel words. Because like our friend, Mr. Weasel, they’re everywhere–and what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.