A propos of nothing in particular, some thoughts on doubletalk, hypocrisy and evasions…
In 1982, during negotiations on a peacekeeping force for the Sinai peninsula, the British Foreign Secretary of the time, patrician Tory smoothie Lord Carrington, was damned by then US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, (using an adjective so rare as to cause some to doubt its existence) as ‘a duplicitous bastard’, and it’s fair to ask whether duplicity, in its various manifestations and like its better-known sibling, hypocrisy, is not a very fundament of the English way of life. Again, it is by our language that ye shall know us and for our language that we are – nowadays – regularly taken to task. For the frequently foulmouthed Haig, this was a mild imprecation; what Carrington had been saying has never been revealed, but ‘the British lied through their teeth’ according to Haig’s aides’. As serious practitioners of the art of insult, the British probably dismissed Haig’s testy comment on Carrington as hardly in the same world class as the invective of Lloyd George, who said that Winston Churchill would ‘make a drum out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises’; of Haig’s namesake, the World War I Field Marshal, that he ‘was brilliant to the top of his army boots’; or of Lord Derby that he was ‘like a cushion who always bore the impress of the last man who sat on him.’ Devastating ad libs and insults are carefully crafted in Britain; Haig’s was an impulsive throwaway.
One way of characterising language which is self-serving, empty and/or evasive is by damning it as ‘weasel words’. As Plain English Campaign veterans Chrissie Maher and Simon Cutts assert, ‘…in step with managerial thinking, opinion polls and an impossibly demanding media, our political leaders employ this new language of clichés, jargon, platitudes and weasel words to hide or twist the truth.’
Weasel words is an expression that appeared in the USA in the late 19th century, and in print in Stewart Chaplin’s short story Stained Glass Political Platform (published in 1900 in The Century Magazine), deriving not from the furtive sneakiness of Mustela nivalis, but from its habit of sucking out the contents of eggs, hence draining words of their real meaning. Weasel itself comes from an extremely ancient Indo–European word denoting a slimy liquid or poison which may also be the origin of ‘virus’. More recently it has featured in popular metaphor: ‘weaselly’ meaning devious and evasive with overtones of malice, while in the slang of the 1950s a ‘weasel’ could refer to a railway porter’s tip, an amphibious military vehicle or in rhyming slang to one’s coat (from ‘weasel-and–stoat’); weak tea in Yorkshire was ‘weasel-pee’ and wits replaced Shell’s petrol slogan of 1965, ‘Put a Tiger in Your Tank’, with ‘Put a Weasel in Your Diesel.’ Poor Willy Weasel didn’t listen to the advice given by the Tufty the Squirrel and was hit by a car when he tried to buy an ice-cream: as the voiceover (Bernard Cribbins) reminded us, in those poignant road safety cartoons of the 1970s, ‘Now Willy has been hurt. And all because he didn’t ask his mummy to go with him to the ice cream van.’ But what is it that makes it so very clear that Willy Weasel is bad news? You just know that he’s going to come to a nasty end. Is it because he’s a weasel, a by-word for a sneak? Is it because his neck is so long and he doesn’t therefore look quite as cute and human as a squirrel? Is it his stripy jumper with its connotations of criminality? Today in cyberslang weasel can designate both a penis and a home-made hashish pipe.
More pertinently, our then Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, in 1990 used Weasel Words as the title of a sonnet skewering the political cynicism of the Thatcherite era by parodying parliamentary rhetoric as reported in Hansard:
Let me repeat that we Weasels mean no harm.
You may have read that we are vicious hunters,
but this is absolutely not the case. Pure bias
on the part of your Natural History Book. (Hear, hear).
We are long, slim-bodied carnivores with exceptionally
short legs and we have never denied this.
Furthermore, anyone here today could put a Weasel
down his trouser-leg and nothing would happen. (Weasel laughter).
Which is more than can be said for the Ferrets opposite…