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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 ferrets.

"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, 1986.

 

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 interrogation.

"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."

 

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Story first posted March 2005

Copyright © 2005

Eric Shackle

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