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Weasel Words

Theodore Roosevelt extolled the American West throughout his life, influenced by his adventures with the people of the West, from Dakota Territory’s Little Missouri River all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

He was never shy talking about the ethical standards he adhered to and strove to uphold in his personal, public and private life. He called out with pride the people he met in the West as being “average citizens of the right type.”

One of his lifelong friends and Dakota cattle ranch companions was Bill Sewall from Maine. TR helped popularize a phrase he had first heard from Sewall’s brother, Dave, and composed a letter about it this week in 1918.

“It was from Dave that I heard an expression which ever after remained in my mind. He was speaking of a local personage of shifty character who was very adroit in using fair-sounding words which completely nullified the meaning of other fair sounding words which preceded them. ‘His words weasel the meaning of the words in front of them’ said Dave, just like a weasel when he sucks the meat out of an egg and leaves nothing but the shell; and I always remembered ‘weasel words’ as applicable to certain forms of oratory, especially political oratory, which I do not admire!”

Roosevelt’s admiration for the cowboys can be understood from one of his autobiography entries.

“The moral tone of a cow camp, indeed, is rather high than otherwise. Meanness, cowardice, and dishonesty are not tolerated. There is a high regard for truthfulness and keeping one’s word, intense contempt for any kind of hypocrisy, and a hearty dislike for a man who shirks his duty. Many of the men gamble and drink, but many more do neither; and the conversation is not worse than in most bodies composed wholly of male human beings…but he does possess to a very high degree the stern qualities that are invaluable to a nation.”

Dakota Datebook: Remembering Theodore Roosevelt is written and performed by Steve Stark. Funding provided by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.

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