'Weasel words' an impulse to confess the truth


MICHAEL Lowry's depiction, at the Dunnes Payments Tribunal last week, of his reference in the Dail last December to offshore bank accounts as "weasel words" that "crept in by mistake" gave an erroneous impression of the meaning of the term "weasel words", and in a manner as unfair to himself as it was to weasels. Mr Lowry also, I believe, underestimated the positive contribution he has made to Irish political culture.

The casual observer might have gained from his explanation an impression of words, like little furry animals, creeping around the place and ending up in Michael Lowry's sentences. But the meaning of the term "weasel words" has nothing to do with the tendency of weasels to crawl about unnoticed and insinuate themselves into the sentences of innocent politicians; it has to do with a rather picturesque analogy for telling lies.

Brewer's Dictionary of 20th Century Phrase and Fable defines weasel words as "words of convenient ambiguity, or an evasive statement from which the original meaning has been sucked or retracted". The term-originated in a short story in an American magazine in 1900, intriguingly entitled Stained-Glass Polltical Platform: "Why, weasel words are words that suck the life of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks the egg and leaves the shell."

The phrase was popularised in the US in 1916 by former president Theodore Roosevelt, who used it in a speech attacking president Woodrow Wilson. "You can have universal training, or you can have voluntary training," he said, in reply to a prevaricating statement by the president, "but when you use the word voluntary to qualify the word universal, you are using a weasel word; it has sucked all the meaning out of universal. The two words flatly contradict one another."

In other words, "weasel words" is a euphemism for untruths. "What matters about lying," writes D. H. Mellor in his essay Telling the Truth, "is giving people false beliefs, just as giving people true beliefs is what matters about telling the truth." Prof Mellor employed an example not of weasels but of Winnie-the-Pooh asking Eeyore the donkey if he has any thistles for tea. Eeyore sighs, causing Pooh to think: "A sigh! So: he believes there are no thistles! So: there are no thistles."

But supposing, Prof Mellor argued, that there are, in fact, thistles, and Eeyore has sighed in order to give a contrary impression to Pooh, so that he can keep all the thistles for himself. He has not said anything false, because he has not said anything at all.

In spite of the donkey's avoidance of verbal communication - or perhaps because of it - Prof Mellor concluded: "Eeyore . . . was lying, or at least doing something just as bad."

MINDFUL of the laws of libel, I should note that the analogy at the heart of the meaning of the term "weasel words" has to do with the perfectly natural and innocent behaviour of weasels. It is not to the discredit of weasels that they suck the insides of eggs and leave the shell behind.

That is what they do in order to survive. The meaning of the term is more readily observed by considering what happens to the egg: the yoke is sucked out of it. And the egg, rather than the weasel, provides the most apposite image of the behaviour of Mr Lowry and other politicians.

Since the sojourn of the National Handlers, who re-created Irish politics as a Hollywood western, language has become the most devalued resource in Irish public life. No word was too strong or too precious to become a missile in the attempt to present Fine Gaelers as good guys pitted against the bandoleros of Fianna Fail.

This tactic was rapidly adapted by the smaller parties, who used it to great effect to saddle Fianna Fail in government and ride roughshod over the wishes of the electorate. Over two decades, a massive disjunction between language and reality became institutionalised in public life.

It became impossible to tell wrong from right, because the available words already carried with them the irrefutable certainty that Fianna Fail was bad and all the rest were good. All forms of wrongdoing not involving Fianna Failers became impossible to articulate, even slightly incomprehensible. By virtue of the creation of a set of fictional beliefs which dominated the public conversation, all political language had the meaning sucked out of it.

What made the Lowry affair most remarkable was that Michael Lowry had become the most visible and epitomising figure of this culture. He was a leading member of a government which came to power on a platform of "openness, transparency and accountability", promising to operate as though behind a pane of glass.

Mr Lowly himself earned much kudos for his campaign to root out "cosy cartels" of Fianna Fail supporters operating in the semi-state sector. None of his allegations, including a charge that he had been put under surveillance by Fianna Fail businessmen, was ever substantiated, but this did not prevent him gaining a reputation as the white knight of Irish politics.

IF, from time to time, it seemed that the beneficiaries of the culture of duplicity wanted to break free from it, to declare the truth in terms and be forgiven for their sins, this should not be surprising. All accusation, as any passing psychoanalyst will tell you, is a form of confession.

It was perhaps inevitable that, from time to time, a clue would creep out between the words of the self-justifications and fulminations of the latter-day-saints of Irish politics, as to the nature of the dark secrets which, in another part of themselves, they were seeking to conceal.

So it was with Michael Lowry. If someone was trying to hide income, he rhetorically asked the Dail on December 19th, "would they not be more likely to put it in, say, an offshore account?" The problem was that, as it emerged, Mr Lowry did have money in offshore accounts. In one sense, his question was the equivalent of Eeyore's sigh, but in another it was a form of confession.

We often hear ourselves parroting the cliche that "truth will out", while failing to comprehend that what it means is that, no matter how accomplished the dissembler, the egg-yolk of truth will one day emerge from the corner of his mouth and drip down his shirtfront. Michael Lowry, the prince of the culture of egg-sucking, wanted to confess all.

It was as though some subliminal force within his personality was saying "enough!". Enough of pretence, enough of hypocrisy, enough of humbug! Enough of creeping into government on the basis of making fools of the public! What crept into his statement were not weasel words but a blurted clue to the true meaning of events.