Thursday, April 7, 2016

Weasels, Speedbumps, and Other Impediments

You've been trained by experience and observation to exercise caution when using certain words, which you have named weasel words and which seem to express a condition, degree, or attitude, but which, on examination, produce less than they deliver. 

This observation about weasel words is not fair to the Mustela nivalis, which, because of its size and ability to burrow, has been likened to slinking, evasive, and squirming behavior, which it in fact will do if necessary in pursuit of its prey or in flight from its predators, and thus has taken on a slang identity of negative connotation.The operant words of description here are "if necessary in pursuit...or in flight." 

Using the term "weasel words" or the verb "to weasel" is no doubt a form of bigotry, which you can often identify as widespread behavior in many cases, but since you claim invention of the term "weasel words," by which you mean words that squirm and burrow away from  direct meanings, you take the hit for this offense to the animal.

Such co-opting of animal behavior as a descriptor for human behavior is a reason beyond experience and observation for your caution in word choice. Words such as very, often, sometimes, and somewhat are verbal equivalents of empty calories; they should be sent off to the trash heap or their use restricted to the kinds of conversation meant more to convey awareness of another person's presence than any attempt to exchange tangible information or engage in substantive argument.

Two words to be regarded with equal care are of another nature, volatile. They should be used with extreme caution, by which is meant one or two plateaus above ordinary caution. These words respectively are always and never, each of which has the capacity to act as gasoline tossed on a fire. 

Beginning a sentence with the pronouns I or you, followed by always or never can have the effect of directing accusation, defensiveness, or both.A conversation can turn into an escalating invitation to raised voices and an array of further indictments forthcoming. The potentials for explosion after defensiveness or accusation are high.

The words always and never, as in "You always--" and "I never-" seem more at home in the dialogue of written or performed drama rather than conversations. They present an image of a character rooted in opinion, dug into the moral high ground. "I'd never do such a thing."  "I always think my actions through before initiating them."  The mere thought of either produces a sense of crisp, charged atmosphere in which individuals appear as though they've set aside the mask of social engagement.

Individuals who spend time together and rarely converse beyond polite acknowledgment nevertheless breed a subtext of hovering, charged arguments deliberately being withheld. They are important background characters, meant to appear on stage with more outspoken and demonstrative front-rank individuals, each group being kept off balance by the others.

Sometimes less fraught words creep into the picture of distractions, for the most part innocent until the writer plucks the word, kicking and screaming out of the wrong context. "They greeted one another warmly." What does that mean? Did one of them light a fire? Did they embrace? Did they exchange a litany of choice greetings?

No problem. Not if you say so.

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