The Guardian • Issue #2057


  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2057
Weasel Words heading


Like many other weasel words, certainty is used to ask for things it would be impolite to ask for directly. The gas industry are just the latest to use this trick, after a busy year of price-gouging, lobbying for subsidies, and making the planet less habitable. If there’s ever a Rent-Seeker’s Guide to Etiquette, it will contain this entry:

Don’t say “We want the government to shovel money into our failing and polluting industry.”

Do say “Members of the gas industry plead for investment certainty.”


Similar to certainty. “Clarity” is used weaselishly when you pretend not to understand something you understand all too well. A case in point is Peter Dutton and the Voice to Parliament. Dutton understands perfectly well what the referendum and the Voice itself will involve, but he’s been pretending not to understand. Since saying “I don’t understand” something anyone can understand would make Dutton look more than a little thick, he’s been asking for clarity instead.


Divisive is one of those transitive adjectives. How you use it depends on whether or not you like the thing being described.  Strictly speaking, any thing that people don’t totally agree on could be described as “divisive.” Some people like Vegemite, some people can’t stand it. Vegemite has now divided people into two groups, so it’s divisive. If you like someone, they’re outspoken. If you think they’re a pain in the neck, they’re divisive. If you think it’s fun to argue about a topic, it’s controversial. If you’d rather everyone shut up about it, it’s divisive.

Inappropriate (“to comment”)

“It’s inappropriate to comment” can mean just that. It can also mean “I’ve found an excuse for not commenting.” If there’s a court case anywhere near the thing you don’t want to comment on, “inappropriate to comment” gets you off the hook, like a magic spell. Exhibit A as lawyers say, Anthony Albanese, when asked about the high-profile case of Ben Roberts-Smith.  Roberts-Smith was found to have murdered unarmed people, bullied other members of the SAS, and his girlfriend’s family, and lied in court. You’d think taking a dim view of murder would be a pretty safe bet even for someone as risk-averse as Albanese, but Australian soldiers are treated like demi-gods by a lot of the media and Albo didn’t want to take chances. So, asked about the Roberts-Smith case, our careful PM just said it would be “inappropriate to comment” because of possible future legal action, rather than risking the wrath of NewsCorp by disapproving of murder.


If there’s no court case going on to get you off the hook, you can always say you don’t want to pre-empt an inquiry. Just ignore all the people who have opinions on the issue anyway and pretend that your opinions on it would be special. Government ministers love this one, which may explain why they like inquiries into fairly obvious questions that could be answered by spending about ten minutes online.

Let’s wait to see

Sometimes you have to do this. Sometimes it just means you don’t want to talk about it.

Witch hunt

Originally this meant trying to find witches (these days that’s not so hard; just type “witches in <your suburb>” and you’re laughing. More commonly, it means an unfair trial, inquiry, or proceeding. Weaselishly, it means any inquiry you don’t like. Former British PM Boris Johnson has been found to have lied to parliament over the parties he had after making parties illegal for anyone else in the UK. A parliamentary Privileges Committee, having worked out what everybody else in the country knew, has recommended that he resign for this. Consequences for Johnson’s lies are always someone else’s fault, so naturally, he’s calling it a a witch hunt.

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More