Weasel Words in Water Utilities: Sanitising Public Language

Weasel words are often used by demagogues, politicians and marketers to disguise what they are saying. A tax becomes a levy, we no longer live, we have a lifestyle and sacking people becomes downsizing. They are weasel words because they suck the meaning out of language, just like a weasel sucks eggs.1 Some weasel words, or buzzwords, are so common that they appear on special bingo cards.

This type of language is, unfortunately also familiar with water utilities. What used to be a sewage treatment plant is now a water reclamation facility, removing any reference to its origins. Sewerage Sludge is magically transformed to a ‘biosolid’, ensuring that the average person has no idea what its provenance is. These new terms suck all meaning from the original words.

Sanitising public language

In a recent article in Water21, the magazine for the International Water Association, John Baten proposed to take ‘evolve’ the language used by water professionals to even deeper levels of befuddlement, as evidenced by the table below.2

Weasel words in the water utility sector
Weasel words in the water utility sector.

Some of these suggestions are even sucking the life out of the existing weasel words. To call a sewage treatment plant a ‘renew enterprise’ is confusing and deceptive. The regeneration—excuse me for using one of these terms—of treated effluent to Star-rated water is a total obfuscation of reality and removes water users even further away from the problems in our water supply chain.

Having said this, a careful choice of words is important. Empirical research demonstrated that framing ‘treated wastewater’ as ‘recycled water’ changed perceptions of the product by consumers and increased their willingness to use and to pay for the service.3

The removal of any reference to poo in the case of treated sewage circumvents the Yuck Factor—the psychological mechanism that prevents people from accepting treated sewage as drinking water. But this is nothing more than a cheap magic trick that will not be able to deceive water users into accepting what they know to be the truth. An example of direct communication about sewerage is the Twitter feed of Daniel Gerling, who is preparing a book on the cultural history of excrement. His language is clear and straightforward, and the impact of his word choice forces people to face the issue.

This type of language will be more harmful than helpful in our industry. Only by calling things by their proper name can we educate consumers about the water cycle and move forward in securing water for the future.


  1. Don Watson, Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, Knopf, 2004.
  2. Baten III, J. (2014). One Water: Uniting around a new water language. Water 21, (February), 12–16.
  3. Menegaki, A. N., Mellon, R. C., Vrentzou, A., Koumakis, G., & Tsagarakis, K. P. (2009). What’s in a name: Framing treated wastewater as recycled water increases willingness to use and willingness to pay. Journal of Economic Psychology, 30(3), 285–292. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2008.08.007.

2 Replies to “Weasel Words in Water Utilities: Sanitising Public Language”

  1. Another interesting article Pete. I tend to agree with you, but I wonder if you have any evidence or case studies to support your proposition that the “language will be more harmful than helpful”? Seems to me that weasel words are more and more an accepted part of our culture.

    1. Murray,

      There is an interesting contrast in my article, which I should have highlighted better. Research shows time and time again that the use of words changes our perceptions. Having said this, as water utilities we should not sink to the depths of sales practices used by commercial companies. We need to use plain language and do not hide the truth behind neologisms such as those in the table above. These are not an evolution of language, but a degeneration of communication.

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