Written in 2004, Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words describes itself as “a serious weapon in the struggle against those whose words kill brain cells and sink hearts”. For those who know me even just a little, it should come as no great surprise that I was drawn to this book.
So what are “weasel words”? They are the language of the politicians, the powerful, the marketers, designed to conceal the truth and often the fact that the politicians, the powerful and the marketers have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s spin. It’s vagueness, fancy words that make them sound smart and reasonable when actually they’re usually talking complete nonsense or trying to cover their butts after having done something they shouldn’t have. The book also contains words that now have meanings completely the opposite of which they initially began life.
A few horrific and hilarious examples:
*“mandate” – described as “The idea that recently elected governments have a right to do what pleases them.”
*“help desk” – accompanied by the following descriptions: “1. A person with some expertise in computers, IT, etc. 2. A person capable of asking, ‘Is it switched on? Have you tried rebooting it?’ 3. Not a desk. Not helpful.”
*“negative patient outcomes” – more commonly known to those outside the healthcare industry as “death”
*“decruitment” – more commonly known by everybody as “being fired”, the opposite of “recruitment”
It came as a bit of a shock to me how many of these words I was and still am surrounded by in everyday life without realising it. Many of them have become so entrenched that we listen to and use them unquestioningly, perhaps because the sheer volume is overwhelming. As a result of reading this book, I was actually able to identify a multitude of weasel words that were used frequently in a previous corporate job including “noise” (complaints), “core competencies” (services), “thought leadership” (research), “value-adds” (free stuff), “harvest” (re-use) and many others.
All writers, especially corporate writers, should have a copy of this book next to the dictionary on their desk. It should be referred to daily and anytime those writers find themselves using the words in this book in any of their ridiculous meanings, they should rewrite quickly before anyone finds out.
This book will make you laugh and cry in equal measure. And if it also makes you re-evaluate the nonsense heard daily from the mouths and press statements of heads of state, business leaders, bureaucrats, celebrities and sports people, then it will have done its job.
*First published on Goodreads 23 March 2016