"Weasel words" are a collection of words and phrases used in informative and technical writing to avoid completely committing to a statement. If the writer can't say for sure that something is going on, you will see weasel words inserted to reflect the author's confidence. I am most familiar with their use in intelligence briefs, where their placement is something of an art. They generally refer to the degree to which the author is willing to commit to a fact's veracity, and rather than being used to make an assertion, they are mostly used to avoid making an assertion, while still leaving an impression. The downside to weasel words is that they add nuance to a statement which may not be perceived by a careless audience, and if taken out of context, "weaseled" statements end up sounding like assertions that the author never intended.
The phrase comes from that unfortunate and all-too-common scenario, where an author will be slightly misquoted. The nuance of his statement is lost, and when questioned later, the author will usually respond with "I never said that." The perception of the careless audience member is that the author is now being a "weasel" and arguing semantics - but weasel words are used to add precision to a statement when every little ounce of fact counts. The author probably spent hours agonizing over the structure of each sentence, and so will be very upset if his or her words are being misconstrued.
Some key weasel words are might, could, possibly, probably, may, likely, very likely, and unlikely. Let's take a look at a few lines from a relatively well-known intelligence report: "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs". The unclassified version was published by the CIA in October 2002, but it is probable that the document was available in a classified format much earlier. This excerpt is from the "Key Judgments" section:
(U) Baghdad has begun renewed production of chemical warfare agents, probably including mustard, sarin, cyclosarin, and VX. Its capability was reduced during the UNSCOM inspections and is probably more limited now than it was at the time of the Gulf War, although VX production and agent storage life probably have been improved.
The important thing to note is that this paragraph probably would sound very alarming to someone if it were read quickly during the evening news, but does not actually make many assertions. The assertions the author(s) make are limited to the following:
- Baghdad has begun renewed production of WMDs.
- These WMDs probably (but not for sure!) include x,y,z, etc.
- Baghdad's capabilities were reduced during the UNSCOM inspections...
- ...and are probably (but not for sure!) lower than before the Gulf War.
- Their ability to produce VX and store it probably (you get the point!) have been improved.
Only two of those state facts which are known (and of those two facts, one was retracted in a later report). Authors use weasel words primarily to clarify what is known and unknown, but they become more weasel-like when they are used to give a political spin to a statement. A sentence incorporating weasel words is usually placed in context within a larger document so that each sentence qualifies and places a slight cant on each other sentence. Assembling a report is a delicate process, and taking items out of context can have disastrous results. Take, for example, the following lines from the same source:
If Baghdad acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material from abroad, it could make a nuclear weapon within a year. Without such material from abroad, Iraq probably would not be able to make a weapon until the last half of the decade. Iraq's aggressive attempts to obtain proscribed high-strength aluminum tubes are of significant concern. All intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons and that these tubes could be used in a centrifuge enrichment program. Most intelligence specialists assess this to be the intended use, but some believe that these tubes are probably intended for conventional weapons programs.
The first two sentences are placed in that order to imply intent, but to starkly qualify what is and is not within the grasp of their technology. Those two sentences taken together say "that's a pretty big IF". Note also that the last sentence qualifies the degree to which the CIA and the intelligence community were willing to commit to the use of the infamous aluminum tubes. Contrast that with President Bush's speech before the United Nations on September 12, 2002 (note that he likely had a copy of the October report before the unclassified version was published):
Iraq employs capable nuclear scientists and technicians. It retains physical infrastructure needed to build a nuclear weapon. Iraq has made several attempts to buy high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon. Should Iraq acquire fissile material, it would be able to build a nuclear weapon within a year. And Iraq's state-controlled media has reported numerous meetings between Saddam Hussein and his nuclear scientists, leaving little doubt about his continued appetite for these weapons.
This is speech-writing at its best, and intelligence authoring at its worst. The CIA document was intended to be informational; the UN speech was intended to persuade. Intelligence is meant to state fact, not decide policy, but because intelligence reports can be used as sources in a speech, it is important for all good analysts to include their weasel words. Should the speech writer leave them out, or state a weaseled sentence out of context, the shades of meaning may be lost. It is probable that a very gray statement could suddenly appear black and white, which is what speech-writers are often paid to do.