An illustration of a weasel using "weasel words". In this case, "some people" are a vague and undefined authority.

In rhetoric, a weasel word, or anonymous authority, is a word and/or phrase aimed at creating an impression that something specific and meaningful has been said, when in fact only a vague, ambiguous, or irrelevant claim has been communicated. The terms may be considered informal. Examples include the phrases "some people say", "it is thought", and "researchers believe". Using weasel words may allow one to later deny any specific meaning if the statement is challenged, because the statement was never specific in the first place. Weasel words can be a form of tergiversation and may be used in advertising, popular science, opinion pieces and political statements to mislead or disguise a biased view or unsubstantiated claim.

Weasel words can harshen or over-state a controversial statement. An example of this is using terms like "somewhat" or "in most respects," which make a sentence more ambiguous than it would be without them.[1]


The expression weasel word may have derived from the egg-eating habits of weasels.[2] An article published by the Buffalo News attributes the origin of the term to William Shakespeare's plays Henry V and As You Like It, in which the author includes similes of weasels sucking eggs.[3] The article said that this simile was flawed because weasels do not have the jaw musculature suitable for sucking eggs.[4]

Ovid's Metamorphoses provides an earlier source for the same etymology. Ovid describes how Juno orders the goddess of childbirth, Lucina, to prevent Alcmene from giving birth to Hercules. Alcmene's servant Galanthis, realizing that Lucina is outside the room using magic to prevent the birth, emerges to announce that the birth has been a success. Lucina, in her amazement, drops the spells of binding and Hercules is born. Galanthis then mocks Lucina, who responds by transforming her into a weasel. Ovid writes (in A.S. Kline's translation) "And because her lying mouth helped in childbirth, she [as a weasel] gives birth through her mouth."[5] Ancient Greeks believed that weasels conceived through their ears and gave birth through their mouths.[6]

Definitions of the word 'weasel' that imply deception and irresponsibility include: the noun form, referring to a sneaky, untrustworthy, or insincere person; the verb form, meaning to manipulate shiftily;[7] and the phrase "to weasel out," meaning "to squeeze one's way out of something" or "to evade responsibility."[8]

Theodore Roosevelt attributed the term to his friend William Sewall's older brother, Dave, claiming that he had used the term in a private conversation in 1879.[9] The expression first appeared in print in Stewart Chaplin's short story "Stained Glass Political Platform" (published in 1900 in The Century Magazine),[10] in which weasel words were described as "words that suck the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks the egg and leaves the shell." Roosevelt apparently later put the term into public use after using it in a speech in St. Louis May 31, 1916. According to Mario Pei, Roosevelt said, "When a weasel sucks an egg, the meat is sucked out of the egg; and if you use a weasel word after another, there is nothing left of the other."[11]


A 2009 study of Wikipedia found that most weasel words in it could be divided into three main categories:[12]

  1. Numerically vague expressions (for example, "some people", "experts", "many", "evidence suggests")
  2. Use of the passive voice to avoid specifying an authority (for example, "it is said")
  3. Adverbs that weaken (for example, "often", "probably")

Other forms of weasel words may include these:[13][14]

Generalizing by means of quantifiers, such as many, when quantifiable measures could be provided, obfuscates the point being made, and if done deliberately is an example of "weaseling."

Illogical or irrelevant statements are often used in advertising, where the statement describes a beneficial feature of a product or service being advertised. An example is the endorsement of products by celebrities, regardless of whether they have any expertise relating to the product. In non-sequitur fashion, it does not follow that the endorsement provides any guarantee of quality or suitability.

False authority is defined as the use of the passive voice without specifying an actor or agent. For example, saying "it has been decided" without stating by whom, and citation of unidentified "authorities" or "experts," provide further scope for weaseling. It can be used in combination with the reverse approach of discrediting a contrary viewpoint by glossing it as "claimed" or "alleged." This embraces what is termed a "semantic cop-out," represented by the term allegedly.[16] This implies an absence of ownership of opinion, which casts a limited doubt on the opinion being articulated. The construction "mistakes were made" enables the speaker to acknowledge error without identifying those responsible.

However, the passive voice is legitimately used when the identity of the actor or agent is irrelevant. For example, in the sentence "one hundred votes are required to pass the bill," there is no ambiguity, and the actors including the members of the voting community cannot practicably be named even if it were useful to do so.[17][18]

The scientific journal article is another example of the legitimate use of the passive voice. For an experimental result to be useful, anyone who runs the experiment should get the same result. That is, the identity of the experimenter should be of low importance. Use of the passive voice focuses attention upon the actions, and not upon the actor—the author of the article. To achieve conciseness and clarity, however, most scientific journals encourage authors to use the active voice where appropriate, identifying themselves as "we" or even "I."[19]

The middle voice can be used to create a misleading impression. For example:

The first of these also demonstrates false authority, in that anyone who disagrees incurs the suspicion of being unreasonable merely by dissenting. Another example from international politics is use of the phrase "the international community" to imply a false unanimity.

Euphemism may be used to soften and potentially mislead the audience. For example, the dismissal of employees may be referred to as "rightsizing," "headcount reduction," and "downsizing."[20] Jargon of this kind is used to describe things euphemistically.[21]

Restricting information available to the audience is a technique sometimes used in advertisements. For example, stating that a product "... is now 20% cheaper!" raises the question, "Cheaper than what?" It might be said that "Four out of five people prefer ..." something, but this raises the questions of the size and selection of the sample, and the size of the majority. "Four out of five" could actually mean that there had been 8% for, 2% against, and 90% indifferent.

See also


  1. ^ Jason, Gary (1988) "Hedging as a Fallacy of Language" Archived 23 June 2018 at the Wayback Machine, Informal Logic X.3, Fall 1988
  2. ^ Theodore Roosevelt Association, Theodore Roosevelt Cyclopedia(subscription required) Archived 14 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ E. Cobham Brewer, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable Archived 10 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Rising, Gerry (15 March 1999). "Weasels". Buffalo News. Archived from the original on 31 July 2013. Retrieved 24 December news)): CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  5. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses (tr. Anthony S. Kline), Book IX, 273–323 Archived 10 October 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Manioti, Nikoletta. "Review of: Women and Weasels: Mythologies of Birth in Ancient Greece and Rome. Translated by Emlyn Eisenach; first published 1998". Bryn Mawr Classical Review. ISSN 1055-7660.
  7. ^ "weasel". Merriam-Webster. Archived from the original on 12 January 2012.
  8. ^ "weasel out". The Free Dictionary. Archived from the original on 15 April 2014. Retrieved 14 April 2014.
  9. ^ New York Times, 2 September 1916, "Origin of 'Weasel Words'" Archived 25 February 2021 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase and Fable
  11. ^ Pei, Mario (1978). Weasel Words: The Art of Saying What You Don't Mean (1st ed.). New York: Harper & Row. p. 1. ISBN 9780060133429. Retrieved 10 February 2022.
  12. ^ Ganter, Viola; Strube, Michael (4 August 2009). "Finding Hedges by Chasing Weasels: Hedge Detection Using Wikipedia Tags and Shallow Linguistic Features". Proceedings of the ACL-IJCNLP 2009 Conference Short Pape: 175. Archived from the original on 27 February 2021. Retrieved 11 May 2017.
  13. ^ Spacey, John. "7 Types of Weasel Words". Simplicable. Archived from the original on 9 July 2022. Retrieved 19 June 2022.
  14. ^ Crilly, Donal. "Weasel words". London Business School. Archived from the original on 29 November 2022. Retrieved 19 June 2022.
  15. ^ Long, Rob (11 April 2011). "In war or business, weasel words come back to bite you". The National. Archived from the original on 30 November 2022. Retrieved 19 June 2022.
  16. ^ Garber, Marjorie B. (7 September 2003). Academic Instincts. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-11571-9. p. 140 "it is alleged"
  17. ^ "Passive Voice". The Writing Center. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Archived from the original on 25 December 2013. Retrieved 24 December 2013.
  18. ^ "The Passive Voice" (PDF). English and Theatre – Grammar Pages. Acadia University. Archived (PDF) from the original on 25 December 2013. Retrieved 24 December 2013.
  19. ^ Every, Barbara (5 July 2013). "Clear Science Writing: Active Voice or Passive Voice?". Archived from the original on 18 January 2022. Retrieved 25 June 2014.
  20. ^ "Has Downsizing Gone too Far?". University of North Florida. Jacksonville, Florida, US. December 1995. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 5 October 2007.
  21. ^ Pop, Anamaria-Mirabela (July 2011). "Business Buzzwords: Rightsizing, Downsizing, Re-Engineering, De-Layering". Retrieved 4 March 2022.

Further reading