Sweet are the Uses of Euphemism

Posted: Jan 22, 2006 8:31 PM

Not long ago a review copy of "Weasel Words" came over the transom. It is a slim little work, compiled by Paul Wasserman and Don Hausrath and published by Capital Books of suburban Washington, D.C. Functionally it is quite worthless -- it's a guest-room book for an insomniac bibliophile -- but it sets some ideas in motion.

What is a writer's first obligation? Obviously it is to sell enough stuff to pay the rent. Nobody but a blockhead, said Dr. Johnson, writes except for money. Beyond that practical consideration lies a duty not so easily defined. It is to use words precisely, to keep their sword edges honed, to search for the exact word and not settle for a nicked saber. Ah, but other considerations intrude. For whom are we writing? In what forum?

The authors of "Weasel Words" stumble over their starting blocks. According to the masters of Merriam-Webster, the term derives from "the weasel's reputed habit of sucking the contents out of an egg while leaving the shell superficially intact: a word used in order to evade or retreat from a direct or forthright statement or position." In contemporary usage, "weasel word" is a pejorative. It implies deception, chicanery, subterfuge, fraud.

Many of the 1,600 terms in this compilation are not weasel words at all. They do not "imply" deception. They define deception. A "kickback," for example, is merely one form of bribery. It's not a weasel; it's a noun. Similarly, "hard-core" provides no room for misunderstanding. A hard-core book or movie is porn at its porniest. No "evasion" there.

The authors regard "folk wisdom" as a weasel term. Hokum! It is not even a euphemism. It is a well-understood term of art. So, too, with "sound bite" and "stagflation." Ideas, actors and milk all have a "shelf life," but this is not a weasel word. To classify "substance abuse" as a deceptive term is to fall into semantic abuse. Professionals in the field of drug enforcement know precisely what the term embraces. The authors lose credibility when they tell us that the actual meaning of "mortality rate" is "death toll." Maybe that definition was writ sarkastic.

Real weasels are nasty little creatures. By extension, a true "weasel word" is a lie, not a mere euphemism. When an odometer has been reset, and a formerly owned vehicle is advertised for its "low mileage," we have a weasel at work. Advertisements for the shirt that "never needs ironing" and the toy that "needs some assembly" are close to weaselly status. Many of the stigmatized terms remind us of the adman at work: Our rural road is his scenic route.

More often than not, the ostracized terms are matters more of manners than malevolence. Everyone knows that a "comfort station" is a public toilet, an "illegitimate child" is a bastard, and a "sanitary landfill" is a dump. If it is necessary to speak of nausea, the meaning ordinarily can be conveyed by such terms as "motion sickness." Yes, the passenger vomited, upchucked or tossed his cookies, but is such clear speech always a writer's aim?

The answer to that query is an ambivalent yes and no. Certainly absolute "clarity" is not a writer's only aim, and it may not be even his primary aim. We write for a perceived audience of readers. What is their level of education? What words may unduly shock or scandalize? What is our forum? In a medical journal the word is "constipation." In Ladies' Home Journal, maybe it's "occasional irregularity."

And there you have the problem with weasel words. Which of a woman's occasionally irregular functions are we writing about? My granddaughters have at least two. Be clear! Be clear! Be not too clear.