A weasel word is a word, phrase or sentence, or organizational setup that contains ambiguity and which therefore doesn't reflect the whole truth. People use these words when they want to give the impression what they are saying is important but don't want to commit to a specific claim or data set. The term comes from the way weasels eat eggs, sucking the matter out and leaving nothing but a shell. Weasel words can occur in any writing or speech, but they are standard in areas such as politics, advertising and corporate business.
Ambiguity is a hallmark of weasel words. A problem with weasel words thus is that their meaning depends on context, which depends on the surrounding culture. Without experience, a person can miss one or more of the interpretations possible.
As an individual word, a weasel word functions as a modifier. Examples are words such as probably, virtually, most, some or often. These words create a sense of how many or when, but they are not specific in number, statistics or dates. The lack of specificity causes trained individuals such as editors to regard the inclusions of weasel words as useless and as evidence of lack of sufficient effort or research.
Weasel words as phrases can be oxymorons or euphemisms. For instance, a person might say "virtually universal." Universal implies that everyone has or does something, but virtually means nearly or almost, thereby canceling out the meaning of universal. Similarly, a company might soften the blow of layoffs by calling the release of workers "leveraging new opportunities" or "streamlining operations." Non sequitur or irrelevant statements also are weasel words, such as if a company says they are "the leader in shoes" without giving information that allows for a comparison to the company's competitors.
A sentence also can be a weasel word. An example of this is "This event is beyond words." This sentence could mean that the person is pleased or impressed with the event, or it could mean that the person is struck by the event's lack of fun, quality or professionalism. People also create weasel word sentences by using questions to make implications, such as by saying, "Do we want to continue under the leadership of someone with this record?" This question implies that the leader has done a poor job, but it does not come out and say anything negative outright, and it does not provide specific data about what is within the record that might be offensive or harmful.
The passive voice hides weasel words, as well. If a person says, "It is said...," for example, the reader or listener has no way of knowing who said what follows. Thus, the writer or speaker avoids specificity about the origin of what he communicates, even though he depends on the authority of that origin.
Organizational setup weasel words occur in documents or tools such as surveys. When a person looks at individual parts of such documents, a problem doesn't exist. When put together, however, one part may imply how a person should interpret the next section.