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The uses of weasels

January 15, 2010
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Words are tricky little things. Depending on inflection and context it’s possible to insult someone horrifically in such a fashion that you know it was an insult, they know it was an insult, everyone else knows it was an insult and yet, officially, it wasn’t, and if called on it you can deny that it was one at all.

Politicians and journalists thrive on this. It’s Churchill (was it Churchill?) coining the ever-popular phrase ‘economical with the truth’, or Ian Hislop and Paul Merton on Have I Got News For You, years ago, reeling off huge lists of scandalous charges and adding “- allegedly” at the end, thus making it all okay.

In academia, where people generally do not hate the people with whom they’re vehemently disagreeing, weasel-wording is encouraged for two reasons: first, academic respect – it’s plain bad manners to say “Critic A’s argument makes no sense and is rubbish” in so few words – and second, plausible deniability, which is handy when the argument you’re contesting is your professor’s.

Here follows a handy print-out-and-keep list of helpful academic weasels. No responsibility is taken for bad marks, expulsion, injuries or death occurring as a direct or indirect result of their use.

Write _____ about a critic, when you actually think _____:

Despite Critic A’s argument, X and Y seem only tenuously connected The connection between X and Y exists only in Critic A’s fevered imagination

Critic A’s assertion that [X] seems unlikely, on balance [X] is so obviously not the case it’s not even funny

Critic A’s argument is somewhat far-fetched Critic A’s argument bears no relation to anything even distantly connected to reality

Critic A’s argument fails to take into account the nuances of the text Critic A’s argument reads like they haven’t actually opened the book

This reading invalidates Critic A’s argument that [X] This reading shows Critic A’s argument up for the rubbish it is

Reading X seems dubious at best Only a space alien would seriously think X was right

One must take issue with Critic A’s assertion that [X] One would demand to know what Critic A was smoking were they still alive

It’s also useful to have some weasel-tastic words in hand to apply to the texts themselves, as every literature student will sooner or later have to write about a canonical text that they nonetheless despise.

Describe a work as ____, if your real opinion is _____:

Sentimental in places Drowning in schmaltz

Maintains the conventions of its genre Cliché-ridden

Difficult Absolutely bastardly hard

Dense Completely incomprehensible

Esoteric Looks suspiciously as if they pulled it out of the air

Obscure The anonymity it has remained in for so many years was thoroughly deserved

Unorthodox Breaks with convention for no other reason than to be annoying

Employs frequent symbolism Author has delusions of being Dan Brown

Radical adaptation Travesty

Relies on traditional narrative formulae Hasn’t an original bone in its body

Somewhat didactic Anvilicious

Overly moralistic More Anvilicious than an anvil sandwich with a side of anvils

Has a strong moral message . . . And absolutely nothing else

Self-consciously literary About to implode under the weight of its own pretentiousness

Populist Appeals to the lowest common denominator

Exhibits the values of its era Would be denounced as bigoted trash were it published today

Deals unflinchingly with issue X Lingers lovingly on graphic depictions of X until you start to wonder if the author is trying to tell you something

Technically brilliant All style and no content

Character-driven Plotless

Plot-driven Characterless

Mediocre Worse than The Da Vinci Code would have been had it been co-written by Bulwer-Lytton and William McGonagall

Practically unreadable Even opening it to the first page will make your eyes melt screaming from their sockets

Unreadable . . .

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Seamus permalink
    January 16, 2010 8:04 pm

    Ha! These are brilliant. I wish I’d seen this before I wrote Tragedy essay 1, which came back with red pens all over the bits where I had pointed out the almost insulting ease with which feminist critics had destroyed traditional interpretations of Agamemnon.

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