Loaded language

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In rhetoric, loaded language (also known as loaded terms or emotive language) is wording that attempts to influence an audience by using appeal to emotion or stereotypes.[1][2][3] Such wording is also known as high-inference language or language persuasive techniques.

Loaded words and phrases have strong emotional implications and involve strongly positive or negative reactions beyond their literal meaning. For example, the phrase tax relief refers literally to changes that reduce the amount of tax citizens must pay. However, use of the emotive word relief implies that all tax is an unreasonable burden to begin with. Examples of loaded language are "You want to go to the mall, don't you?" and "Do you really want to associate with those people?".

The appeal to emotion is often seen as being in contrast to an appeal to logic and reason. However, emotion and reason are not necessarily always in conflict, nor is it true that an emotion cannot be a reason for an action. Authors R. Malcolm Murray and Nebojsa Kujundzic distinguish "prima facie reasons" from "considered reasons" when discussing this. A prima facie reason for, say, not eating mushrooms is that one does not like mushrooms. This is an emotive reason. However, one still may have a considered reason for not eating mushrooms: one might consume enough of the relevant minerals and vitamins that one could obtain from eating mushrooms from other sources. An emotion, elicited via emotive language, may form a prima facie reason for action, but further work is required before one can obtain a considered reason.[3]

Emotive arguments and loaded language are particularly persuasive because they exploit the human weakness for acting immediately based upon an emotional response, without such further considered judgment. Due to such potential for emotional complication, it is generally advised to avoid loaded language in argument or speech when fairness and impartiality is one of the goals. Anthony Weston, for example, admonishes students and writers: "In general, avoid language whose only function is to sway the emotions".[1][3]


Politicians cultivate loaded language, and often study how to use it effectively: which words to use or avoid using to gain political advantage or disparage an opponent. Heller gives the example that it is common for a politician to advocate "investment in public services", because it has a more favorable connotation than "public spending".[4] Contrast the extremely negative formulation of "the tax-and-spend politicians borrowing off the backs of our grandchildren" with the extremely positive formulation of "the public servants ensuring crucial investment in our essential infrastructure for the public good", in describing exactly the same thing ("government spending" which is the neutral version of the phrase).

One aspect of loaded language is that loaded words and phrases occur in pairs, sometimes as political framing techniques by individuals with opposing agendas. Heller calls these "a Boo! version and a Hooray! version" to differentiate those with negative and positive emotional connotations. Examples include bureaucrat versus public servant, pro-life versus anti-choice, regime versus government, and elitist versus expert.[4]

Following the September 11 attacks, the word madrassa (which means "school" in Arabic) was loaded with negative connotations by Western media outlets that equated schools that teach primary education subjects with extremism. The YaleGlobal Online magazine claims that bias in U.S. newspaper coverage of Pakistan has increased since the September 11 attacks.[5] Politicians including Newt Gingrich,[5] Donald Rumsfeld,[6] and Colin Powell.[7] have used the word madrassa in a negative context.

In the 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language", George Orwell discussed the use of loaded language in political discourse.

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Anthony Weston (2000). A Rulebook for Arguments. Hackett Publishing. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-87220-552-9. 
  2. ^ Larry Lavender (1996). Dancers Talking Dance. Human Kinetics. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-87322-667-7. 
  3. ^ a b c Malcolm Murray and Nebojsa Kujundzic (2005). Critical Reflection. McGill Queen's University Press. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-7735-2880-2. 
  4. ^ a b Richard Heller (2002). High Impact Speeches. Pearson Education. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-273-66202-0. 
  5. ^ a b Moeller, Susan (2007-06-21). "Jumping on the US Bandwagon for a "War on Terror"". Yale Global Online. Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. 
  6. ^ Rumsfeld, Donald (2003-10-16). "Rumsfeld's war-on-terror memo" (Transcript). USA Today. Retrieved 2008-01-14. 
  7. ^ "Madrassas breeding grounds of terrorists: Powell". The Tribune. 2004-03-11. Retrieved 2008-01-14. 
  8. ^ "Politics and the English Language", Horizon, April 1946, retrieved 2012-02-12 

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