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November 21, 2006


Richard Mascall

I had come across the use of the phrase in two forms : (i) using ambiguity as a cloak for the possible real meaning (such as commenting on a clothes purchase by one's spouse by saying "Eye-catching !", and (ii) using officialese as the cloak (such as saying "the company considers it inappropriate to take such action."

I checked my copy of Brewer's and found that the person who made the phrase popular was Teddy Roosevelt back in 1916, in an attack on President Wilson. Roosevelt pointed out that Wilson'e phrase "voluntary universal training" was meaningless. Roosevelt in turn had apparently obtained the "weasel words" phrase from an article in the Century magazine of June 1900 which actually referred to a weasel sucking an egg to leave just the shell, as your text describes.

Nigel Warburton

Thanks very much for this. I agree that deliberate ambiguity and euphemistic or sometimes virtually meaningless officialese are two of the more usual manifestations of weasling...I have my doubts about the further sense I mentioned in my post - Weston's description of it as a kind of equivocation. I wonder whether this is a misuse of the term...

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