Weasel Words

Imprecise use of words reflects unclear thinking


Justice Virtue

Every generation complains about the shortcomings of its successors. Grievances about the state of “the world today” have filled the thoughts of the grumpy (aged and ageing) since time began. But there’s never been a time when all was well. Dickens said it so nicely: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Except that his judgment of the days of the French Revolution fits every time and every age.

So in assessing our own or any other times, we need to keep things in proportion. We all have little prejudices that ought not to obsess us. Personally, I hate the common misuse of the word decimate.  Properly it refers to the destruction of just one in ten, but is nowadays assumed to mean annihilation, perhaps due to its resemblance to the word desolation. Polyanna, on hearing the word, would probably have been glad: “I’m so happy for the nine that survived!”

There are far more serious linguistic abuses. For example, pedophile simply means someone who is sexually attracted to children. But sin resides in yielding to temptation, not in being tempted. There are many who struggle courageously and successfully to resist and sublimate perverse attractions; to lump them together with bullies and rapists is deeply unjust. The effect of applying that word so loosely actually plays down the enormity of the gulf between temptation and performance, between courageous resistance to evil and the cowardly wickedness of people who rape and dreadfully injure the most vulnerable.

Denier is another word often misused, sometimes deliberately and mischievously. Nobody but a fool denies the reality of climate change throughout the ages, as a contingent circumstance of our life in a temporal sublunary world. The only points at issue are the extent to which human activity has contributed to the rate of change and whether human intervention can affect the climate. The word denier has some nasty connotations, for it cannot be used without hinting at a darker side: everybody today knows the term Holocaust Denier, and there are those who want you to think that to deny one is to deny all, who snidely vilify those who seek exactness and precision in determining the facts. In reality one can believe in climate change, and in the serious need to clean up our planet, without subscribing to the King Canute theory of sea level adjustment.

Imprecise use of words, whether deliberate or sloppy, reflects unclear thinking. Hypocrisy is its by-blow. Australia’s refusal to contemplate the use of nuclear energy, and our determination to close down all non-renewable power stations, are strange indeed when you consider how much money we make from exporting coal and uranium. Distress over child abuse does not ring true when it comes from the same lips that proclaim the priority of Choice over the right to life of unborn children.


David Daintree was President of Campion College (Australia’s only Catholic liberal arts college) from 2008 to 2012. In 2013 he founded and is now Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, under the patronage of the Archbishop of Hobart.

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