Monday, 23 April 2012

Slippery customers

The other morning on the bus I heard one man say to another man (both of them too old for their Tintin haircuts but not old enough for their Inspector Gadget raincoats):  ‘I don’t think we can  grasp any further  outreach specific  inward-facing cyclical movement going least not at this point in time.’  Unfortunately, I did not catch the reply—I was preoccupied by the vision of a circle of  civil servants holding hands in a giant washing machine half-way through its spin cycle.  
I believe this to be a  example of  ‘weasel words’, which the ever helpful Wikipedia defines as:  "an informal term for equivocating words and phrases aimed at creating an impression that something specific and meaningful has been said, when in fact only a vague or ambiguous claim, or even a refutation has been communicated".  (Is it just me, or is this definition a bit weaselly as well?)
Mr Wikipedia goes on to say that  the expression (apparently) comes from "the egg-eating habits of weasels".  In this case, I think we could safely say the egg was well and truly sucked. 
There is a website dedicated to weasel words and even a book called:  'Watson's Dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Cliches, Cant & Management Jargon'.  It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but at least you know where you are with a title like that.  In any case, weasel word is a lot easier to say than tervisigate, which means the same thing.  
It's not just a weasel world out there either, linguistically speaking.  As well as being weaselled, words may also be ‘skunked’--which is how lexicographer Bryan Garner describes words that are so commonly misused that people are convinced they are wrong when used correctly (as in confusing 'disinterested' with  'uninterested').  Jack Rosenthal, in the New York Times, called these words 'phantonyms', which is a great word, although it lacks that important extra layer of meaning implying that words that have been skunked are probably best avoided altogether.
It does seem a bit hard on small furry mammals, associating them with our growing inability to say what we mean or mean what we say, although there is personal precedent.  I remember my father and a boyhood friend reminiscing about being sent out to shoot squirrels for the pot, in the Ozarks during the great depression.  'I could never really have any warm feelings for squirrel,' my father's friend said.  'So my mother would give it some fancy name--fricasee  this or game the other-- as if that would help the taste.  Well, you could call it anything you wanted, as fancy as you liked, but that didn't stop it being squirrel pie.'  
Possibly outreach specific, inward-facing cyclical squirrel pie.
In a strange coincidence, a friend sent me an article about the 'war against wrongly used words' (so encouraging--I didn't even know there was a skirmish).   The good news is that the Associate Press Stylebook has just changed the rules for the use of the word hopefully, so it is no long restricted to meaning ‘in a hopeful manner, but can now mean ‘it is hoped’. 

  So I can say with complete impunity:  hopefully my father’s friend won’t have to eat any more squirrel pie.   I’m still not sure what we should do about the weasels...but if I were David Cameron's press secretary I'd stay away from Greggs.

1 comment:

  1. As a friend of weasels everywhere, I must protest at the continuing use of the offensive phrase 'weasel words' and would suggest something like 'politico words' would be more appropriate - and accurate.