We often pepper our writing with unnecessary words.
Sometimes we do this in a misguided attempt to add description – such as when we say something is very good, or quite reasonable, or really shocking. You don’t need to write very, quite or really – and if for some reason you feel you’re not being specific enough, then maybe you’re using the wrong word. Instead of saying something is very good, say it’s great.
Other times, however, we use unnecessary words deliberately – such as when we’re trying to sound more important or knowledgeable than we are or we’re trying to deceive.
This is what the term “weasel words” refers to. The phrase was coined by author Stewart Chaplin in 1900, who said weasel words “suck the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks the egg and leaves the shell” (fun fact: Theodore Roosevelt later claimed he coined the term himself).
Weasel words appear everywhere:
- in fake apologies (ie “I’m sorry if you feel that way”)
- in poorly researched articles that don’t give attribution to statements (“Scientists say that …” or “It is known that …”)
- in advertisements and company bios (“We are a leading provider of …”)
- and don’t get me started on corporate speak (“We are engaging with our stakeholders”).
If you sometimes use weasel words then don’t feel too bad – we all do, including myself (I’ve often found myself using hideous terms such as best practice and stakeholder management, only to then cringe).
After all, it’s natural for us to use the words we hear all the time – plus weasel words are easy to say. They get us out of situations where we don’t have exact facts, or where we don’t know exactly how to explain something, or we’re not entirely sure we’re even correct or don’t want to be held to account (alarm bells should ring when you hear might, may, could, believe and can).
Weasel words are all about ambiguity, rather than stating something clearly and definitively. They’re easy for us to say, but they’re harder for others to understand.
For example, most of the time when I see the word facilitate in a sentence (ie “This partnership will facilitate a strong foundation on which to build a more productive work environment”) I have no idea what’s actually being said. How exactly will the partnership lead to a more productive work environment? What exactly will happen? In what way would the work environment become more productive? And don’t get me started on the word foundation.
It’s easy to make fun of weasel words such as paradigm shift and synergy, which have been lampooned for so long that you wonder how anyone can still say them with a straight face – but vague words such as facilitate, resources, facilities, stakeholders and so on are used all the time.
Don’t call someone a resource – because aside from being dehumanising (I hate it when people refer to me as a resource), it’s also almost meaningless. Everyone and everything is a resource, unless they’re utterly useless. The same goes for facilities. When real estate companies boast that their properties offer state-of-the-art facilities, I have no idea what, exactly, they’re talking about. Does this mean they have nice toilets?
I recently taught a workshop where a participant said she and her colleagues play buzzword bingo (also referred to as cliché bingo or bullshit bingo) during meetings.
The idea is you discreetly bring a list of words with you to the meeting and every time a buzzword is mentioned you cross it off the list – and the first person to get five matches (or 10 if it’s a particularly long meeting) wins. Others turn it into a caffeinated drinking game, where you take a sip of coffee at every mention.
So at the risk of getting someone fired by playing this game, here’s a list of buzzword bingo words that you can take into your next meeting (and I suggest tailoring this list to suit your industry, as every field has its own whoppers):
- action (as in “to action that proposal”)
- best of breed
- best practice
- big picture
- bleeding edge
- blue sky thinking
- bottom line
- core competency
- deep dive
- deliver (and deliverables)
- drill down
- end result
- going forward / moving forward
- green fields thinking
- in the pipeline
- leading edge
- outside the box
- reach out
- reality check
- state of the art
- take this offline
- talking points
- touch base
- value proposition
- world class.
If you know of any weasel words that aren’t on this list, feel free to add them in the comments section:
Learn more by enrolling in the Business Writing online course
Study at your own pace, whenever and wherever you want.
This course is suited for anyone who wants to improve their writing – whether it’s for reports, briefs, business emails or letters.
It teaches all the basics, including:
- writing with the audience in mind
- planning – and clarifying – your writing
- using the right tone and style
- the importance of using plain English to write professionally
- how to write short, sharp and snappy sentences
- writing in the active voice (and knowing when to use the passive)
- using positive phrasing
- formatting copy to make it easier to read
- writing in the inverted pyramid style
- structuring and frontloading content
- showing, not telling – except when you need to tell
- how to deliver bad news
- tips on writing different kinds of content, including business emails, letters, reports, briefs, tenders and grants
- using the power of three to make your writing more persuasive
- style guides
- grammar and punctuation tips
- writing great headlines.
Fun and practical, this writing course is filled with exercises that allow you to put theory into practice.Find out more and enrol