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. 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. Murray and 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.
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".
Euphemism is an attempt to avoid loaded language with undesirable connotations, but it often introduces new loaded language.
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". 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 and accurate 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-death versus pro-choice, regime versus government, and elitist versus expert.
Loaded language is often used by news broadcasters as a propaganda technique. During the Falklands War, British reporters were pressured by politicians to use phrases such as "our troops" and "our fleet", but resisted, preferring "the British fleet" and "the Royal Navy task force". This was done because domestic broadcast television and radio channels were received by people in other countries; reporters deemed it important that their news reports were considered to be credible and trustworthy by this external audience. Hence they avoided such language.
Following the September 11 attacks, the word madrassa, (which means "school" in Arabic) was loaded with negative connotations by Westerners who did not speak Arabic and failed to make the distinction between strictly extremist schools and schools that teach primary education subjects. The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization examined bias in U.S. newspaper coverage of Pakistan since the September 11 attacks. They found the term had acquired a loaded political meaning:
When articles mentioned "madrassas", readers were led to infer that all schools so-named are anti-American, anti-Western, pro-terrorist centers having less to do with teaching basic literacy and more to do with political indoctrination.
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.
- Anthony Weston (2000). A Rulebook for Arguments. Hackett Publishing. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-87220-552-9.
- Larry Lavender (1996). Dancers Talking Dance. Human Kinetics. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-87322-667-7.
- Malcolm Murray and Nebojsa Kujundzic (2005). Critical Reflection. McGill Queen's University Press. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-7735-2880-2.
- Richard Heller (2002). High Impact Speeches. Pearson Education. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-273-66202-0.
- 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.
- Rumsfeld, Donald (2003-10-16). "Rumsfeld's war-on-terror memo" (Transcript). USA Today. Retrieved 2008-01-14.
- "Madrassas breeding grounds of terrorists: Powell". The Tribune. 2004-03-11. Retrieved 2008-01-14.
- "Politics and the English Language", Horizon, 1946-04, retrieved 2012-02-12