Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The lesser of the two weasels

The lesser of the two weasels 31 May 2000
Chris Borthwick,
Managing Editor
Health Promotion Journal of Australia

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Re: The lesser of the two weasels

Norman Fairclough's book New Labour, New Language? deals with the watering down of political discourse. Jeff Aronson's review of the book unfortunately perpetuates an example of its own. Aronson says ".."weasel words" [are]... used (most famously by Theodore Roosevelt, criticising President Woodrow Wilson) to describe rhetoric that sounds as if it has substance but is actually empty of specific meaning, or is at best ambiguous and vague." No: Roosevelt was more precise. He wasn't naming the rhetoric in general, he was pinning down the particular words in the sentence that carried it. What he said was "When a weasel sucks eggs the meat is sucked out of the egg. If you use a "weasel word" after another there is nothing left of the other." Empty or vague rhetoric is not in itself made up of weasel words; that only happens when you nominate a firm action or decision or stand and then add a few carefully chosen saving words that deprive the action of any specificity. To say "I am against prejudice" is simply vague rhetoric; to say "We will act against prejudice" may sound precise but be ambigious; to say that "My government pledges to introduce a bill outlawing prejudice at the first appropriate opportunity" is a firm commitment with one weasel word, appropriate, to suck the content out. I think it is a distinction worth preserving.


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