victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Apr 19 17:49:27 UTC 2010

I just started looking into all sorts of weasels, largely the more
recent, figurative use. The expressions "weasel words" and "weasel
phrase" were most certainly popularized by Teddy Roosevelt--a number
of OED citations for both "weasel-word" and "weasel" as "attrib. or
adj.", including all the earliest ones are associated with Roosevelt's
speeches. Yet, he did not coin the phrase--I already found an 1887
reference (from the Philippines!) and I am still on the first page of
search results. But one thing that appears to be completely missing in
the OED is the sense of "weasel" alone as a descriptor of someone
guilty of "weasel" behavior in that particular sense (sly, misleading,
lying, slithering). Oh, there is a sub-entry under 1.a. as "transf.
and fig.", starting with the "weazel Scot" line from Henry V. But
that's a different metaphor--perhaps "sneaky/-ing", but also
associated with "weasel sucks eggs" like that Shakespeare used more
than once--Brewer also cites As You Like It, ii 5. But this is not the
same meaning that is used now and more closely associated with
language (although the sense of underhandedness remains in some
occurrences, which is closer to the original "sneaking around" usage).

Antedating might be very hard--not just because the word is so common,
but because there are so many shades and variations running in
parallel. Searching for phrases is a lot easier. The meaning ought to
have been

I'll have the phrase antedating in a few hours, but if anyone beats me
to it, I won't mind.

What brought this on is the connection between South Carolina and
"weasels"--which used to be the state nickname. That nickname is no
longer used and I was wondering if they have Teddy Roosevelt to thank
for that. The latest occurrence that I have--without much recent
searching (but I did the search back when hunting for
leathernecks)--is from 1893 (back to 1871). OED has 1845 and 1875 for
citations. The Roosevelt quotes and citations start around 1900 with
other (non-OED) citations going back a bit further. So if the nickname
was dropped around that time, there would be a direct connection. But
if the nickname was used up until WWII, the connection would be
tenuous at best.

Any thoughts or finds on the subject would be helpful.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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