The careful reader's guide to weasel words

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2007, 12:00am

The prevention of cruelty to words is a noble cause much despised by politicians and bureaucrats but, as the New Year approaches, there is always hope that they can be converted to the cause. In this spirit I offer a list of words and phrases requiring urgent attention:

'At this moment in time': That's four words too many in place of the simple 'now'.

'Consensus': This is a weasel word much favoured by local politicos who wish to prevent something happening by demanding that everyone agrees before it can happen. This ensures stalemate because, in this imperfect world, complete agreement is ridiculously unattainable.

'First, let me say that I'm all in favour of democracy but...': this is the phrase of choice for Hong Kong's most avid anti-democrats. It demonstrates that, if nothing else, they have mastered the use of double speak.

'Leverage': A ghastly word whose misuse has been refined by American business schools. Government officials think they are being clever by talking about leverage when they really mean 'use'. Plain speaking is to be recommended before we start leveraging the opportunity to leverage a fist to the nose of the next official who misuses this word.

'Moving forward': Yet again, American business schools are almost certainly to blame for this exquisite piece of superfluity. Even elementary grammar books insist that the use of the future tense does not require additional words to denote that the future, not the past, is meant.

'Patriotic': It is hard to quibble with the dictionary definition of this word, which simply means love of one's country. But here it has a double meaning: to be patriotic in Hong Kong means loving both the nation and the Chinese Communist Party.

'Pragmatic': This is one of our chief executive's favourite words. When it comes from his lips it has two meanings: first, it means agreeing with him; and second, agreeing with everything Beijing says.

'Rational': Somehow this word, which has a distinct meaning of its own, has come to be interchangeable with 'pragmatic'. Therefore the definitions given for its use above lamentably apply also to 'rational'. Dictionaries tend to take another view and suggest that it means the ability to reason. Sometimes definitions are easier to understand by viewing their negatives. We might say it is irrational to conduct a consultation exercise which discovers that the majority of people hold one position, but then say the real majority holds another position, which should prevail. Very clever readers will fit some specifics to this framework.

'Relevant government department': How often have you heard this phrase in recent times? It generally refers to a department responsible for whatever subject is under discussion, but it sounds to me like an attempt to differentiate between relevant and irrelevant government departments. Once we go down this road of reasoning we are likely to be on a very long journey.

'Responsible official': Presumably, again, this refers to the responsible, as opposed to the irresponsible, official. An interesting thought worth pursuing, but perhaps not in the ways intended by most of the people who use this silly description.

'Sincerity': Be very afraid of anyone who constantly proclaims his or her sincerity. In Hong Kong the word has been imported wholesale from Beijing, where officials regularly use it to urge those who disagree with them to be 'sincere'; thus giving a novel meaning to this commonplace word.

'Win-win': some people think it's clever to produce emphasis by saying the same word twice. Very young children do this a lot (as in: 'I want, I want.'), but surely it is unseemly in adults. Yet the abominable use of 'win-win' has entered the lexicon of all sorts of people who speak of win-win situations. Ugh!

So, moving forward, may I leverage this opportunity to wish each and every relevant reader a less word-challenged 2008.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur