Weasels’ Dictionary

mayoThere’s an ad for mayonnaise which boasts that the product, a beloved semi-national brand, contains “real ingredients.” They go on to cite eggs (in tones that suggest that the manufacturers are bestowing a great gift–look! we include eggs in our mayo!), but the important part, the part that is supposed to make the buyer feel good about this high-end product, is the real ingredients.

‘Cause fake ingredients are so second class.

“Real ingredients” is one of those phrases that exists for no other reason than to fool the consumer into thinking something has actually been said. Real ingredients? As opposed to those whipped up by magic or using a matter-rearranger? Or cardboard cutouts with the words OIL, EGGS, VINEGAR, etc. marked in Sharpie? Does saying “real ingredients” mean you’ve told the consumer something?

No, actually.

“Made with ingredients” encourages the listener to hear “special ingredients,” or “pure ingredients,” or “ingredients hand picked from the slopes of Mt. Olympus.” But that’s not what the ad is saying. It’s saying “there’s stuff in this mayonnaise but we’re not telling you what.” Most of the time we, the listeners, add the qualifier. It’s a strategy.

This is a rant about the carefully crafted weasel words that permit an unwary listener or reader to think something has been said. Like “natural.” Natural calls up visions of fields of clover, with Bambi and Mother Nature gamboling in the sunshine. But it doesn’t mean a whole lot as far as the FDA is concerned (since almost anything to which the term is applied has been processed to some greater or lesser degree). If there are no preservatives or synthetic substances, it can be called All Natural. Advertisers rely on us to supply the clover, the sunshine, the safety and purity that All Natural suggests.

Home-made is another one, although restaurants have been shifting to “house-made” and supermarket brands use “home-style.” But home-made, conjuring Grandma in an apron, checking the seasoning on a big pot of spaghetti, is still used sometimes.

Still, weasel words can backfire. A friend on Facebook noted that she passed a shop that advertised “home-made pork.” But the phrase didn’t conjure up a fragrant kitchen, but something a little more SFnal: a basement full of tanks filled with nutrient fluids, growing pork. Soylent Green: it’s what’s for dinner.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


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