Weasels and Weaselwords
The internet is full of pleasant surprises. Searching for Don Watson's
Australian weaselwords website to read about his war against bureaucratic
jargon, we tapped in "weaselwords.com", only to find it's an American
website devoted not to fuzzy words but to small furry animals called
"Do you want to learn more about what some are saying is America's third
most popular pet after cats and dogs?" it asked. Well, no, not really. We've
had a foolish fear of ferrets ever since reading Saki's classic horror
story, Sredni Vashtar, many years ago.
Still, we read on, and were delighted to find a link to an instructive
article, How to Trace a Lost Ferret, by Mary Van Dahm. Among many
useful tips, Mary wrote:
Check through your house carefully, including places where your ferret
"couldn't possibly go." Look inside closets, drawers, under dressers and
other furniture, on shelves, in hampers or clothesbaskets, under and
inside refrigerators and other appliances.
Check your backyard, bushes
and garage. Most ferrets when exploring a new area will cling to the
side of a building or structure before venturing out into an open area.
If your ferret is used to going for walks with you on a leash, check
areas where you may have taken your ferret before. He will be most
likely to go to familiar territory before he wanders into strange areas.
Not caring much for the idea of being leashed, we paid a brief visit to the
New York magazine Modern Ferret
, before retuning to our original
objective, the Australian weaselwords.com.au
We'd read about it in a story
by Nick O'Malley in the Sydney Morning Herald:
Don Watson, the former speechwriter for [former Prime Minister] Paul
Keating who declared war on dead and dissembling language in his books
Death Sentence and Weasel Words, has opened a new front
with an associated website.
The site, weaselwords.com.au, is full of
readers' examples of turgid bureaucratese cluttering their lives. There
is an ad for a "Non-ongoing position" rather than a temporary job; a
snippet from an applicant who claims to have "implemented the
development and enhancement to the functionality of the existing
geographic information and mapping systems by leveraging off
opportunities within inter-agency initiatives".
The crimes against language on the website are often baffling and
sometimes funny, but his campaign against jargon and cant is serious.
Watson sees the wooden language of our working lives leaching into our
homes and hearts.
When we finally found wordsmith Watson's whimsical website, we enjoyed
reading this introduction:
We have asked people to send us examples of dead, silly or deceitful
language and now that the media is on to us we've been even more
inundated. Much as we'd like to, we haven't been able to post all
Language Crimes or Weasel Words , so if you still need to 'vent', check
out the FORUM where you can share your frustrations and observations
with others. Maybe you have sentiments similar to the following
anonymous email we received:
'Get a life, your website sucks and is just plain boring, if
language never changed we would be speaking like Shakespeare or not
speaking English at all, maybe its time you just get over it (sic)
It includes this hilarious quotation from that master of political
weaselspeak, Sir Humphrey Appleby, star of the BBC comedy classics "Yes,
Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister":
Sir Humphrey is trying to tell Jim Hacker that he cannot upset the
Tobacco Companies, because he has been entertained by them:
'Notwithstanding the fact that the proposal could conceivably encompass
certain concomitant benefits of a marginal and peripheral relevance,
there is a consideration of infinitely superior magnitude involving your
personal complicity and corroborative malfeasance, with the consequence
that the taint and stigma of your former associations and diversions
could irredeemably and irretrievably invalidate your position and
culminate in public revelations and recriminations of a profoundly
embarrassing and ultimately indefensible character.'
Hacker asks for a précis. 'There's nicotine on your hands,'
replies Sir Humphrey.
- 'The Smoke Screen' by Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. UK, BBC,
Politicians' newest weasel word
The latest weasel word is interview instead
of interrogation. Here's an extract from an ABC (Australian)
news item broadcast on February 16:
Yesterday, Prime Minister John Howard refused
to answer Labor's questions in the Parliament, insisting he would
leave it to the Defence Minister.
Senator Hill concedes Australians did interview prisoners but they
were not involved in any interrogations.
"When Australians participated the witnesses
had to do so voluntarily," he said. "They were entitled to end the
interview when they chose and they were not to be under any duress."
Labor Senators will quiz Senator Hill and
his department over the allegations at a Senate hearing today.
Labor's Kevin Rudd has described Senator
Hill's response to Mr Barton's claims as "lame", and has accused the
minister of splitting hairs over the definition of interview and
"What Mr Barton has to say is that these
Iraqi prisoners had hessian bags on their head and they were
accompanied by Iraqi guards who had guns," he said.
"If that's Senator Hill's definition of a
bit of voluntary chit chat on the side about what have you been
doing in Iraq for the last 30 or 40 years, I think we have passing
strange definitions about what constitutes an interview."