Loaded Language

By Mark Nichol

If your parents brought you up vigilantly, chances are that you were admonished to use your words carefully. As far as writing is concerned, that instruction is one of the most valuable lessons you learned.

Consider the power of connotation, the sense of a word apart from its denotation, or literal meaning. Unless you have your heart set on being a propagandist, be cautious about the synonym you choose in a particular context.

Look, for example, at thin and its associated words: Thin, itself, is an ambiguous term; depending on context, it might connote an healthful or unhealthful appearance. To say that one is lithe, slim, slender, svelte, or willowy, meanwhile, connotes an attractive body type maintained, perhaps, by engaging in physical fitness and/or eating sensibly.

However, anorexic, bony, and skinny suggest an excessive thinness. To say, for example, that a fashion model is lithe is complimentary; to describe her as bony is pejorative. (An anonymous wag went further in coining the phrase “bag of antlers” to suggest a woman whose bones protrude in such an unsightly fashion that she resembles such an object.)

Loaded language can have much more loaded consequences. A famous — or infamous — example is the popularity during the mid-1980s of the term “freedom fighters,” which Ronald Reagan, then president of the United States, used to characterize counterrevolutionaries fighting the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

Some people observed at the time that the actions of some of these guerrillas, who were being supported by the US government, merited instead the term terrorists and that the Reagan administration was cynically using a term meant to disingenuously associate the counterrevolutionaries (often called contras, from an abbreviation of the Spanish form of that word) with the patriots of the Revolutionary War. The contra controversy was exacerbated by the fact that the Sandinistas themselves behaved at times like terrorists, but this complication didn’t negate the propagandistic taint of “freedom fighters.”

Similar words with negative connotations include militant, which describes someone who may not necessarily engage in combat or even physical violence but is an ardent and perhaps destructive protester, and vigilante; the latter word connotes someone who flouts the rule of law in seeking to uphold it and suggests a dangerous disregard for justice in the course of retribution for unproven crimes.

Political propaganda characterizes a given geopolitical entity by a weighted word depending on the writer’s perception of the nature of the political system that entity operates under: Government is a neutral or positive term; regime or junta, by contrast, connotes a dictatorship.

Similarly, an academic or a scholar is someone employed in a professorial capacity whose opinions you agree with; if you’re at odds with such a person’s viewpoint, you might label him or her an elitist or refer to the person as someone isolated from reality in an ivory tower. A government employee whose work you support is a public servant; one who has an adverse impact on your quality of life is a bureaucrat. Politicians whose bills propose expenditures you desire are investing in the nation’s infrastructure; those whose legislation you consider wasteful are spending your hard-earned tax dollars.

And, perhaps most provocative, people who support the right of women to have an abortion call themselves pro-choice, while their opponents label them pro-abortion. On the other hand, what one person might call an antiabortionist would likely self-identify as pro-life.

This post does not advocate avoidance of loaded language; if you wish to express your opinion, you will likely make use of weighted words. But if your intention is to express impartiality, take care in the terms of art you choose.

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6 Responses to “Loaded Language”

  • thebluebird11

    So true! It reminds me of an old crack, something like “a man who asserts himself is a go-getter; a woman who asserts herself is a b****,” and the like. Everything depends upon your point of reference and point of view, the half-empty or half-full glass etc. Make mine Diet Coke and I won’t complain LOL

  • Leil Lowndes

    Just a brief note to tell you how fabulous your daily hints are. As an author and language lover, I look forward to reading your insights daily. Congrats and gratitude.

  • Roberta B.

    Also, as we’ve discussed, certain words from certain lexicons often are borrowed and applied in a metaphorical sense to sound logical or convey an image that evokes an emotion. Politicians excessively use loaded words, metaphors, and allegories, but I suppose they can argue that is the only way to get the attention of some people who are incapable of or disinterested in logic!

  • Anais

    You can make a game out of looking for loaded language in the works of journalists or simply in the AP stylebook.

  • Sally

    This proudly partisan propagandist would claim that the only area of human experience that exists in splendid absoluteness and without extraneous baggage is Pure Mathematics (and then only in *this* universe! :D).

    The degree of ‘objectivitity’ in one’s language – on any topic – varies in proportion to one’s distance from the object of discussion.

  • David Logan

    “… an healthful…” ,,,?

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